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Young Drivers Guide to Freeway Driving

(updated May 5th, 2009)

You've been to driver's ed. You've probably been driving for a few years now. And maybe you're thinking there's nothing more to learn about how to get to your destination quickly beyond flooring the gas pedal.

But it's safe to say you never stop learning. Same goes for the editors in Edmunds' road test team; and we're behind the wheel much more than the average driver. We test hundreds of cars, SUVs and trucks all over the globe; scream around racetracks in Ferraris; and plod through gridlock in dually pickups. And after many years of experience and numerous encounters with fellow motorists of all skill levels, we've learned that the most widespread offensive behavior of all is poor freeway lane discipline — or being in the right place at the wrong time.

Why should you care? The boring answer is that poor lane discipline can pose safety issues. It also contributes to those traffic jams we all love to hate. But, more importantly, poor lane discipline slows everyone down. And no one hates that more than us...Except maybe you.

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Fortunately, learning good lane discipline is a cinch.

Keep right: The cardinal rule of freeway travel is: Stay in the farthest right lane unless you have to pass a slower motorist. Many drivers break this rule so their cruise isn't interrupted by traffic merging from the on-ramp. But to go against this basic tenet results in all lanes traveling more slowly than their potential.

When traffic is light, your driving time should be spent in the far right lane of the freeway. Drive in the middle lane when the right lane fills up with slower-moving cars. But never travel in the far left lane (a.k.a. the fast lane) unless passing a vehicle in that center lane. When the pass is complete, immediately return to the center.

Cars merging onto the freeway should always yield to oncoming traffic. But if they don't, when safe, switch over to the middle lane to go around them, then return to the right lane.

Now, about passing on the right. Technically, this is a legal gray area in many regions, though rarely if ever enforced. Due to inconsiderate, inattentive drivers clogging the left lane, however, many motorists are left with no other option than to pass on the right. In that regard, use it only as a last resort.

Don't be a left lane squatter: If someone approaching from behind flashes their headlights at you while you're in the left lane, don't take it as an insult. They're just driving faster. It happens. Typically, this driver will briefly flash his headlights (or high beams at night) as a gentle reminder to the slower driver to return to the middle lane.

As an alternative to the headlight flash, some drivers will put on their left blinker as a way to alert left-lane squatters to their approach. Either method means the same thing: Move over as soon as it's safe and let them by. No biggie.

Traveling in the left lane does not magically make you a fast driver. And although it may be an ideal place to zone out, if you're traveling slower than the speed of traffic, your squatting in the left lane slows everyone down and just lets 'em know that you are DWI (driving while ignorant). Whether you see a flash, a blinker or just an approaching car, the left lane is not the place to cruise.

You go, I go: A freeway on-ramp is basically a street-legal drag strip. Here, the point is to reach freeway speeds before the on-ramp ends. So go ahead and stomp on the gas pedal to merge smoothly with the flow of traffic. Young drivers usually don't have a problem with this concept, but there are still those who are shy about jumping into the thick of things.

On-ramps spit you out into a "merge lane," a short lane that disappears after a few hundred feet. Use the merge lane, and your driver mirror, to smoothly enter the freeway. The keyword is "smoothly." If you're not already traveling at the speed of traffic by the time you reach the merge lane, you did it wrong.

When merging into slow-moving traffic, use the patented "you go, I go" technique. It's a simple and courteous way to keep things flowing, yet not many people bother to employ it: Watch the car in front of you merge; before you merge, let the guy next to you creep up behind him. Alternating in this way allows for the smoothest possible flow of traffic both for those merging and those already on the freeway.

"You go, I go" should also be utilized when a freeway lane ends, forcing lane traffic into the adjacent lane.

The Cheerio effect: Ever notice how the last few Cheerios in a bowl of cereal tend to cling together? The same phenomenon occurs in freeway traffic — cars traveling at different speeds will adopt some common speed, forming a clump of traffic called "wolf packs" in driver's ed but not as cool as it sounds. Wide-open freeway lies ahead and behind the clump, but the way is blocked for faster-moving traffic, thus contributing to the beginnings of a traffic jam. Bad! A complex social explanation for this behavior probably exists, but we'll call it "Cheerioing."

To avoid becoming a contributor to the blight of Cheerioing, resist the temptation to match the speed of fellow motorists just so you can zone out and cruise. Instead, pick your speed and continue at that pace.

Everything in its right place: Underpinning good lane discipline is the need to pay attention. Distractions while driving are plentiful, so here is an easy way to maintain your focus: Keep both hands on the wheel. This will instantly make you a more aware driver and better able to respond to emergency driving maneuvers.

That's mostly what good lane discipline is all about — a little bit of knowledge and an awareness of your surroundings. By using the basic guidelines we've provided here, we will all reach our destinations that much sooner and safely.

Extra credit: For other editors' tips on how to get to where you're going safely, check out "Top 10 Editors' Tips to Prevent a Car Accident."