TAMPA — One thing really bugs Tim Pigott as he zips around town in his yellow Dodge Neon. He'll be minding the speed limit, minding his own business, when some car gets right on his tail.
Yet there he was Thursday morning, handing over his license and registration to a Tampa police officer who stopped him for tailgating.
"It's one of my biggest complaints, and here I am doing it myself," Pigott said.
Tampa police on Thursday demonstrated a new laser tool to crack down on tailgating, handing out 15 warnings in an hour. Similar to the handheld radar used to nab speeders, the laser gun measures distances between vehicles, giving police more precise evidence for use in court.
Tampa is the first police agency in the Tampa Bay area, and possibly the state, to use the laser gun. The agency bought a dozen of the guns with a $48,000 state grant.
Tailgating is not only annoying, it's more dangerous and ubiquitous than people know, said Tampa police Cpl. William Shaw. It leads to thousands of rear-end collisions each year and fuels road rage.
About 1,800 people in Hillsborough County were cited last year for following too closely, according to the county's Clerk of the Court. More than 25,000 drivers were cited statewide, records from the Department of Motor Vehicles show. Many more might have escaped tickets because the offense is difficult to prove with the naked eye.
"This gives us an extra edge when we go to testify," said Shaw, who applied for the Department of Transportation grant in 2008.
Officials at other agencies, including the Florida Highway Patrol, Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the St. Petersburg Police Department, had never heard of the device, though it has been used in Colorado, Texas and other locations.
In Florida, guidelines say drivers should stay at least two seconds behind the vehicle ahead of them. That two seconds should give drivers enough time to hit the brakes, no matter what speed they're going, said police Sgt. Carl Giguere.
A normal, sober adult's reaction time on a day with good visibility is about a second and a half, he added.
Tampa police typically pull over drivers for following distances of less than a second. "We give people the benefit of the doubt," Giguere said.
At Thursday's demonstration in Palmetto Beach, some drivers were clocked following as closely as four-tenths of a second. Pigott was caught at nine-tenths of a second.
Pigott, 42, who works at MacDill Air Force Base's communication office, said he was thankful for the lesson, and that Officer Obel Boza let him off with a warning. A ticket for following too closely costs $151 and three points on a driver's license.
Boza said drivers can use the two-second rule or they can try to stay a car length's distance away from the preceding car for each 10 mph they're traveling. In other words, three car lengths for 30 mph, two for 20 mph, and so on.
"Most drivers have no clue," Boza said.
When drivers are so close, they don't leave room for error, said Capt. Mark Welch, spokesman for the Florida Department of Safety and Motor Vehicles in Tallahassee.
In Welch's nearly 30 years in law enforcement, he said tailgating has consistently been a problem, and drivers seem to agree. In survey after survey from the Florida Department of Transportation, drivers nearly always list aggressive driving as a top complaint, said chief safety officer Marianne Trussell.
"It's speeding all the time or changing lanes or road rage and, of course, following too closely," Trussell said.
Perhaps it's a problem that will soon be mitigated, at least in Tampa.
"Following too closely is unacceptable," said Giguere, aiming his laser gun at another tailgating car Thursday morning and signaling an officer waiting down the road. "Today we wanted to educate drivers. But we will write citations."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.