If you spend much time driving the freeways, especially in Southern California, then you’ll know what I’m talking about here. Most people who drive the freeways have no idea how to get from “Point A” to “Point B” without screwing things up for the drivers around them. As pointed out by the inimitable Dave Barry in his book, Dave Barry Turns Fifty, “The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we all believe that we are above-average drivers.” Well, I'm here to tell you most people are dead wrong. From what I’ve observed, the majority of people who drive the freeways daily have no clue about how to properly use those four lanes they’ve been granted access to. First, a brief description of what exactly we’re talking about.
The normal freeway is comprised of multiple lanes, usually four. This primer isn’t about driving on those two-lane blacktop “National Highways” that meander willy-nilly across the country. I’m talking about high speed, four lane, get-me-to-the-other-side-of-the-city-pronto type freeways. The type typically found in large cities across the country, but that originated in Southern California.
For the sake of clarity, let’s number the lanes 1 through 4, left to right. The left lane (or “fast lane”) is number 1, then proceed across to the number 4 lane (the “slow” or “merging” lane). Lanes 2 and 3 are in the middle of the other two. If there are more lanes on the particular stretch of road you use, that’s OK. The rules are the same, especially for the far left and far right lanes.
All clear? Good. Now, why are there four lanes? Is it just to accommodate four lanes worth of traffic, all chugging along together in one big knot? Not exactly. Read on.
Lane 1 is for passing only. If you are overtaking a car on the freeway, you move one lane to the left and pass that car. Lane 1 is the only lane that is exclusively for passing. Once you get by the slower traffic and the lane is clear to your right, you move back over and clear the passing lane for cars that may be overtaking you.
LANE 2 AND LANE 3
These lanes are for cruising. Get in one of these two lanes and hold your desired speed until it’s time to exit the freeway. The only time you should be out of these lanes is when you’re passing someone or entering/exiting the freeway.
This lane is for getting on the freeway and getting off the freeway. When entering, as soon as you get up to freeway speed merge with the traffic in one of the two middle lanes and hold a consistent speed until you are ready to exit. When exiting, merge into Lane 4 BEFORE you begin to slow down, then reduce your speed until you reach your exit and leave the freeway.
All righty, then. Now that we’re familiar with the playing field, let’s get down to some game-time strategies to make it all work.
For Pete’s sake, go one speed and maintain it. Every car that’s been sold in this country for the last twenty years has cruise control. Use it! The biggest problem on the freeway, whether you’ve taken the time to notice or not, is all the random speeding up and slowing down that is totally unnecessary. It’s usually just due to someone being distracted or falling asleep between the ears, but varying your speed causes other drivers to have to hit their brakes, and NOTHING messes up traffic on the freeway quicker than a bunch of people slamming on their brakes. Get on the road, get up to speed so you can hold your spot in traffic and turn on your cruise control. Then all you have to worry about is occasionally overtaking a slower moving car ahead of you and getting off the freeway when the time comes.
And while we’re on the topic, when someone approaches from behind and moves over to pass you, don’t speed up. This is just plain rude and often dangerous. If you must, let the person go by before adjusting your speed. Better yet, just keep going as fast as you were going. It’s not a race. Which brings us to...
LET ‘EM PASS
If you’re approached from behind while driving in the number 4 lane (which you shouldn’t be, remember?) move out of the way and let the other car pass. No matter how fast you’re going, let them pass. Too often you’ll see someone who has the, “Well, I’m going fast enough” mentality sitting in the fast lane with a dozen cars in line behind them. The freeway is no place to let your ego do the driving. Move over and they’ll be out of your life in seconds.
PASS ‘EM ALREADY
Conversely, when you pass someone, please hurry up and do so. Too many times I’ve moved over to let someone by only to have them hover in my blind spot or sit next to my front bumper for the next ten miles. If you’re passing, keep moving!
ONLY SLOW DOWN WHEN ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY
Hitting your brakes on the freeway is almost never the correct move. Sure, I don’t want you piling into the guy in front of you. If he puts on his brakes then so should you. But, if you need to exit the freeway in a mile or two, don’t put on your brakes to move over. Be thinking far enough ahead so that when it comes time to exit you can do so seamlessly. Speed up slightly as you change lanes so the people behind you don’t have to hit their brakes. If there are a couple of cars between you and the exit, speed up and pass them before moving over. Avoid the brake pedal whenever possible.
Don't follow too closely. Besides being dangerous, it leads to traffic jams. If you leave yourself plenty of room and the guy in front of you hasn’t read this brilliant treatise on freeway driving, when he hits his brakes for no good reason you'll have enough time to just take your foot off the gas and coast, and hopefully he’ll either speed back up or move out of your way before you have to hit the brakes. Yeah, I know some doofus is going to squeeze in there if you leave enough room. Let him. He's not going to slow you down.
YOUR FRIEND, THE ON-RAMP
Most on ramps are long and relatively straight to allow you to build up speed before entering freeway traffic. Take advantage of that. Get as close to freeway speed as possible before you merge, and don't forget to use your blinker, OK? There is no excuse for entering the freeway at 45- or 50-mph when you could be doing 65. Then other people have to start hitting their brakes, and we don’t want that, remember?
Use your blinkers. Most people will allow you to change lanes if you start signaling early enough to get over comfortably. Courtesy begets courtesy.
Check your mirrors often. ALL your mirrors. Keep track of the other cars. That way if some chowderhead up ahead slams on his brakes you’ll know where the openings are to make emergency maneuvers.
THINK AHEAD, THINK AHEAD, THINK AHEAD. 99% of all problems on the freeway are caused by people making sudden maneuvers based on the fact they didn’t think ahead and found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Don’t fall asleep between the ears, and if you do, don’t do anything rash to try and correct it. No one’s going to shoot you if you have to drive two exits down the freeway to safely exit and come back. It might even make a funny story. Way funnier than a multiple car pileup.
Turn off your cell phone if you don’t have a hands-free device. And no matter what, don’t try to text while driving. Lately I can’t drive anywhere on the freeway without seeing the telltale “cell phone weave”. You know the one. The guy in the fast lane up ahead suddenly slows down, people have to swerve around him and/or hit their brakes. He then slowly crosses the line into the next lane, whips it back, slowly drifts onto the shoulder, whips it back, you pull up behind him, he’s looking down to his right, arm extended. You know, you see it all the time too. The stories of people dying while texting and driving are legion. Knock it off already.
Look as far down the road as possible. If you can see a quarter mile ahead, do it. If you can see a half mile ahead, do that too. I don't mean stare way down the road and ignore everything else, but you should be checking down the road as far as you can as often as you check your mirrors. The more time you have to react to a problem the better your chances are of staying out of trouble. Stay alert.
THE WRAP UP
That’s pretty much it. These guidelines, if followed by everyone on the freeways, would make things much easier. The number of traffic jams and multiple car smash-ups would go down tremendously along with everyone’s blood pressure. Do I think it’ll happen? Not in my lifetime. Walt Disney made a cartoon one time with Goofy as his example of what not to do. They showed it to us in Driver’s Ed when I was in high school. Sad to say, most people out there drive a lot like Goofy. But you don’t have to, and the more people who learn these lessons and start driving like it’s a responsibility instead of a God given right, the better off we’ll all be.