Driving on Highways
Step-by-Step Instructions to Exiting a Highway

Merging With Traffic: Step-by-Step Instructions To Exiting a Highway

Updated Dec. 11, 2020

When exiting a highway, drivers must move through multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic, make speed adjustments and be ready to abide by new road signs, pavement markings and traffic control devices. Just like entering a highway, exiting one presents a significant risk. Highway exits consist of a deceleration ramp and an exit ramp – much like an entry point, yet in reverse. Reading through the information in this module will help you prepare for and exit and leave the highway safely.

Step-by-step instructions

Use the steps laid out here to leave the highway safely, when your exit is approaching:

  1. 1

    Identify which lane runs adjacent to the deceleration lane and merge into that lane, well before the exit.

  2. 2

    Activate your turn signal to let other drivers know you intend to merge.
    It is a legal requirement to do this at least 100 feet before the turn in most states. Use hand signals if your indicator is not visible or is malfunctioning.

  3. 3

    Merge into the deceleration lane.
    You must not decrease speed before entering this lane. Make sure you are not straddling the dividing line.

  4. 4

    Decrease your speed gradually once you have entered the deceleration lane.
    Keep a lookout for road signs which indicate a safe speed to use on the exit ramp.

  5. 5

    Be prepared to abide by road signs and traffic signals once you have left the highway.
    Keep within the posted speed limit.

Preparing to exit a highway

The biggest and most dangerous mistake you can make when leaving an expressway is not preparing for your exit in advance. Guide signs indicating your exit will be posted at intervals at least a mile prior to the turn-off, so there is no excuse for making a last-minute maneuver. If you are traveling on an unfamiliar route, be sure to plan your journey and check distances ahead of time, to make sure your exit does not take you by surprise.

When the first guide sign appears, you should have about one mile left until your exit. At this point, check the traffic around your vehicle and begin merging toward the exit lane, one lane at a time. Never cross multiple lanes in one maneuver, even if you realize you are about to miss your exit. If you miss the opportunity to merge into the exit lane safely, leaving the highway will have to wait until the next exit. It is always better to be late than to end up involved in a serious collision.

Highway exit signs

Freeway guide signs often provide a lot of useful information about your exit, including its name and number, the distance remaining until the exit, whether the exit is located on the left or right side of the highway and how many exit lanes will be available. Exit signs are usually placed on the same side of the road as the exit they are marking.

Yellow “EXIT ONLY” signs will often be placed above highway lanes as an exit draws nearer. Occupy this lane ONLY if you intend to leave the highway, as it feeds directly into the exit ramp. Motorists who intend to remain on the highway must merge out of the “EXIT ONLY” lane at the earliest safe opportunity.

Using deceleration lanes

Exit lanes become deceleration lanes as they break away from the highway. As their name suggests, deceleration lanes should be used to reduce speed in preparation for merging with slower-moving traffic. The length of the deceleration lane will determine how rapidly you must reduce your speed. You will likely encounter yellow and black speed limit signs on the deceleration lane, indicating how fast you should be traveling. Keep in mind that a different speed may be posted on the exit ramp itself.

The exit may have several deceleration lanes to prevent congestion. If this is the case, drivers should aim to occupy the right-hand lane to make way for other traffic attempting to exit. Yield for other motorists who are seeking to merge right from the left-hand deceleration lane.

Check your mirrors and glance over your shoulder when entering the deceleration lane, as it is likely there will be multiple vehicles leaving the highway at the same exit. Watch out for potential conflicts with other drivers, signal your lane change and maneuver smoothly as you enter the deceleration lane.

Using exit ramps

An exit ramp will join the deceleration lane to the road beyond the highway. The exit ramp may be straight or curved, moving uphill or downhill. As the shape or gradient of the exit ramp may obscure your view of the roadway, proceed with caution and be prepared to adjust your behavior for road signs and traffic signals. You may be required to yield or come to a complete stop at the end of the ramp.


Right-of-way is not something you will often need to consider when exiting a highway, as the entry and exit ramps are generally separate. When entering or exiting a highway through a weave area, you must know when to yield the right-of-way to other drivers. Such areas are clearly marked with a “WEAVE AREA” road sign, to let motorists know when giving way will be necessary.

The law states that vehicles leaving the highway have right-of-way over vehicles entering the highway. Keep in mind that having the right-of-way in this situation does not necessarily mean you should never yield. If it would be safer to yield to a driver entering the highway, this is the action you should take.

Common mistakes

Here are some of the mistakes most commonly made by inexperienced drivers while exiting a highway. Keep them in mind and do your best to avoid them!

  1. 1

    Reducing speed before entering the deceleration lane.
    Slowing down while still on the main highway could cause another, faster-moving driver to hit your vehicle from behind.

  2. 2

    Entering the deceleration lane too late.
    Drivers exiting the highway should move into the deceleration lane at the earliest, safe opportunity. Enter too late and you may not have enough time to slow down. If you miss your chance to leave, you must wait until the next exit.

  3. 3

    Trying to re-enter the highway from the deceleration lane.
    Careless drivers sometimes attempt to re-join the highway from the deceleration lane, having realized they are taking the wrong exit. This is extremely dangerous as other motorists will not be expecting you to merge from this lane and may not have time to react to avoid a collision. If you realize you have taken the wrong exit once you have begun to merge into the deceleration lane, you must exit the highway and re-enter using the proper entrance ramp.

Possible risks

Some situations can increase the risk involved in exiting a highway. Look out for these potential problems:

  1. 1

    If a weave lane is present at the exit, motorists will be seeking to enter and exit the highway at the same time.
    Exiting the highway gives you right-of-way in this situation but be prepared to yield if exercising your right-of-way may cause a collision.

  2. 2

    Exit ramps at some intersections are sharply curved.
    They may be posted with a speed limit as low as 5 mph. Be prepared to reduce your speed significantly on curved exit ramps, as you may otherwise lose control of your vehicle.

  3. 3

    Be prepared for slow-moving or stopped traffic on the exit ramp.
    There may be a “STOP” or “YIELD” sign at the end of the ramp holding people up.

Always pay close attention to the actions of other motorists entering the exit ramp, as they may move too quickly, stop suddenly or attempt to merge without checking the traffic around them. You must avoid sudden maneuvers and abrupt stops when exiting the highway, as other drivers may not anticipate your action and have time to react.

Once you have left the highway and entered the deceleration lane you MUST proceed through the interchange, even if you realize that exiting the highway at this point was a mistake. Attempting to swerve out of the deceleration lane or turn around would likely cause a collision and is against the law. Continue along the exit ramp and re-enter the highway at the next available entry point.

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