Driving Rules for Using Lanes: Choosing The Right Lane & MergingUpdated Aug. 5, 2019
You know what driving lanes are, but do you know how to use them correctly? There is far more to using driving lanes than simply keeping yourself within the road markings that separate one row of traffic from another. Which lane you should occupy and how you should drive within that lane depend on your speed, direction of travel, whether you intend to turn and a whole host of other factors.
Many rural roads have just one lane traveling in either direction, while roads in more densely populated areas have more. The number of lanes a road has is generally dictated by the volume of traffic passing through that area at any one time. All drivers will eventually need to navigate a multi-lane road, even those living in the most rural of areas.
Occupying the correct lane is relatively straight forward when traveling on a familiar road, though it can be confusing on highways and large intersections you have not driven through previously. Take the Katy freeway in Texas as an example – how would you choose which of its 26 lanes to drive in? It is not as difficult as you may think. Keep reading to learn how driving lanes work.
Choosing the right lane
Choosing the right lane to drive in on a highway is important. Make the wrong choice and you will substantially increase your chances of being involved in a traffic accident. You may be fortunate enough to avoid a collision despite using highway lanes incorrectly, though – depending on the severity of the mistake – you will annoy other drivers and may even land yourself a traffic ticket.
Generally, the best choice on the highway is to remain in the right-hand lane unless you wish to overtake another motorist. The speed at which you should travel in a lane increases with each lane further to the left you go. Some states even have a “keep right” law which prohibits motorists from using the left-hand lane for anything other than overtaking. We will discuss how to choose a driving lane in greater detail.
Changing lanes while driving
There are driving techniques and safety practices which you MUST observe when changing lanes. Your driving examiner will assess your lane-changing skills during the driving test! Changing lanes incorrectly can endanger you and all other road users in the vicinity; it will cost you a pass on the license exam. One of the worst mistakes you can make during the driving test is changing lanes at an intersection. This is not strictly illegal in all states but usually qualifies as a “dangerous lane-change” and as such, will lead to a fail.
As changing lanes is always risky, you should avoid doing it unless the situation demands it. Drivers should always signal their intention to change lanes using their indicators (or hand signals, if indicators are malfunctioning), checking that there is enough space to merge to the new lane using side and rear-view mirrors. You must also look over your shoulder to check your vehicle’s blind spots. Check out our comprehensive changing lanes break-down to find out more.
Merging into a new lane of traffic safely and successfully is a matter of identifying a space large enough to accommodate your vehicle. Most state handbooks recommend looking for a four-second gap between cars. You will also need to judge how quickly the new lane of traffic is moving and adjust your speed to match. To begin with, merging can be stressful. With practice, it will quickly become second nature.
Entering a highway
From the very moment you drive onto the highway entrance ramp, you should begin checking the traffic. Gauge the speed at which other drivers are traveling and identify gaps in the traffic that may allow you to merge. Motorists who are already on the highway have right-of-way, though they will often slow down or move over to allow entering drivers a chance to join. Signal your intention to enter the acceleration lane and increase your speed when you do; by the end of the acceleration lane you should be traveling at the same speed as the traffic in the right-hand lane of the highway.
Look for a four-second gap in the traffic, though be prepared to enter a smaller space if the highway is particularly busy or slow-moving. Do not brake or stop in the acceleration lane – no matter how tempting it may be – as merging will be much harder and will require a larger gap if you are traveling too slowly. Read our full description on safe highway entry to find out more.
Exiting a highway
The key to exiting a highway safely is identifying the exit you will need in advance of your journey. Preparation to leave the highway begins several miles in advance of your exit, when highway guide signs warn you of the approaching turn off. Merge into the appropriate lane on the right or left side of the highway (the position of the exit’s guide sign will give you this information), well in advance of your exit.
The deceleration lane next to the exit ramp should be used to decrease speed. Merge onto this lane observing the proper procedure as soon as possible, to ensure you are left with enough time to slow down. Do not brake before entering the deceleration lane, as you may be rear-ended by another driver remaining on the highway who is traveling at speed. When exiting the highway through a section marked “WEAVE AREA”, you may need to yield right-of-way to other drivers.
Entering the deceleration lane is your point of no return. Never attempt to re-enter the highway from the deceleration lane, as other motorists around you will not anticipate the maneuver. Equally, you must not rush to leave the highway at the last moment if you have missed your exit approaching. Wait until the next exit, as a sudden maneuver on to the deceleration ramp could cause a serious collision. Our “exiting the highway” page discusses these issues in more detail.
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