Safe Following Distances | Learner’s Licence Test | K53

What is a safe following distance?

The question of maintaining a safe following distance behind the vehicle in front of you can be a little confusing, because the ‘distance’ is usually defined in terms of minutes, not metres.

In addition, the requirements for the Learner’s Licence test are different from those in the K53 Driving Licence test. This page intends to clarify the matter of safe following distances for the different classes of motor vehicles in South Africa, with relevance to both official tests.


Learner’s Licence test

In South Africa, for the Learner’s Licence test, a safe following distance is one that is reasonable and prudent having regard to the speed of the vehicle you are following and the traffic on and the condition of the roadway. The distance between your vehicle and the one ahead should be long enough that if that vehicle should stop suddenly you could still bring your own vehicle to a controlled stop without having to swerve to avoid a collision.


K53 Driving Licence test

In the practical diving test, the required safe following distance is quantified in terms of the number of seconds’ travelling time it would take you to reach a point on the road or roadside that the vehicle in front of you has just passed.

If you don’t maintain that minimum distance all the time, penalty points will be deducted from your allowable number of points for errors during the test.

Note: These distances are the K53 test absolute minimums. Training experts for the Diving Licence test do NOT consider these to be safe distances. Their recommendations are given lower down.

The Glossary of the K53 Driving Licence Test Modules states:

For light motor vehicles:

“Safe following distance: It is determined when the rear of the vehicle ahead passes a fixed reference point – e.g: lamp post, road sign, mark on the road, etc., by the driver of the vehicle directly behind counting “2001, 2002, 2003”. The front of the vehicle should not reach the same point of reference before this count is completed. Under adverse conditions such as rain, slippery surface, poor visibility, etc., the distance should be increased.”

In plain language this means:

  • When the back of the vehicle ahead of you passes an object, the front of your vehicle must not reach that same point in less than 2 seconds.
  • The way you estimate that time is to start counting just as the front vehicle passes that object, with your first count being “two thousand and one”. In this way, when you count “2002” approximately one second would have elapsed. And when you count “2003”, two seconds would have elapsed.
  • At “2003” the front of your vehicle should not yet have reached that same object. If it has, the following distance is not ‘safe’ in terms of the K53 Driving Licence test minimum requirement.
  • The distance should be increased in adverse conditions as noted above, and also when the vehicle is loaded with passengers or goods (not mentioned in the K53 Glossary).

Different distances for different vehicles

The 2-second minimum applies to light motor vehicles (e.g. cars, bakkies, etc.). Here are the K53 absolute minimum following distances for the different classes of vehicles, per the K53 test modules and Glossary:

Light motor vehicles: 2 seconds

Heavy motor vehicles: 3 seconds

Motorcycles: 1 second


Those distances are NOT safe!

Notwithstanding what the K53 Driving Licence test requirements state, driving experts believe that the minimum distances specified for the driving test are not safe enough.

Imagine riding a motorcycle at 60 km/h and the car in front of you suddenly stops unexpectedly to avoid a pedestrian who ran into the road. Do you think you could stop safely without swerving or crashing into the back of the stopped car, if you’re only 1 second ‘distance’ behind that vehicle, moving at 60 km/h? Moreover, a motorcycle rider is particularly vulnerable on the road.

In addition, for the K53 Driving Licence test it is better to be on the ‘safe’ side of the scoring system, and not merely stick with the absolute minimums. Your estimates might be inaccurate and therefore grossly unsafe. It is therefore wise that a candidate should rather stay within the following safe following distances recommended by driving licence experts.

So, what IS safe?

In normal weather, road and traffic conditions:

Light motor vehicles: 3 seconds behind the vehicle ahead (50% longer than the K53 minimum)

Heavy motor vehicles: 6 seconds behind the vehicle ahead (double the K53 minimum)

Motorcycles: 4 to 5 seconds behind the vehicle ahead (4 to 5 times longer than the K53 minimum)


A useful chart from Ireland

Thanks to Adv. Jonckie Jonck of who shared a website URL in Facebook, here is some useful information, including visual charts, issued by the Road Safety Authority of Ireland. The charts show the safe following distance in metres when travelling at different speeds, for dry conditions and separately for wet road conditions.

Please note! This chart from Ireland is purely for guidance only and has no legal relevance for the South African Learner’s Licence and K53 Driving Licence tests. Note too that it is for cars (light motor vehicles).

Here is the link: Road Safety Authority, Ireland – Stopping Distances for Cars


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