A Modern Survival Guide Interlude
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for navigating and interacting with the modern world. And this article is an interlude, an aside that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might want to know. And a lot of people don’t know how to drive on the highway. Let’s see if we can fix that!
Ah, the highway! The great open road! How freaking American is that? The freedom of going where you want at 70 mph is intoxicating and glorious. So it’s a shame when you run up on someone who is just bad at highway driving, isn’t it? Especially since this can impact your survival more than most other things in life; car crashes are a major cause of death and injury in the US. It is very important to know how to drive safely and properly.¹
Ok, moment of truth time, raise your hand if you’re a legitimately bad driver. It’s ok, you’re just sitting in front of a computer, no one else can see you. But be honest for just a moment — do you suck at highway driving? If so, don’t worry! I’m here to help. This article will cover some important things about highway driving, starting with your journey up the entrance ramp and ending with what to do if things go wrong.
Entrance and exit ramps have one purpose: to get you up to or down from highway speeds. The whole ramp is for that purposes; if you’re smashing the accelerator or slamming the brakes, you’re doing it wrong.
By the time you hit the highway, you should be doing a little more than the speed limit. This will let you get a little bit of room to maneuver, since people in the right lane on the highway will probably be going close to the speed limit and you may need to merge into traffic. It’s easier to lose speed than gain it in most cars, so going a little faster than the merge lane can help you find a spot.
DO NOT stop on the ramp unless you absolutely no-kidding have to. It is very hard to build up enough speed to merge into traffic if all you have is the last fifty yards of the merge zone. This is also very dangerous — stopped traffic at the end of a merge ramp is just waiting for an inattentive driver to come around the ramp curve and cause a pile-up.
On exit ramps, start slowing down as soon as you are entirely off the highway and not before then. Most exit ramps come with a stop sign or light at the end, and again, it’s bad form (and dangerous) to have to slam the brakes.
The Right Lane
The right lane is the highway’s primary merge lane and as such is actually a fairly stressful place to be. It tends to attract stop-and-go traffic, you have to be on the alert for drivers entering or exiting the highway, and it’s the slow lane.
My advice is to stay out of the right lane unless:
- You are merging onto or off of the highway.
- You are looking at exit signs.
- You don’t want to drive fast.
- The weather is bad and you need a yellow line to sight on.
These are all perfectly valid reasons to hang out on the right. But my personal experience has been that it is more tiring, frustrating, and takes longer to drive in the right lane, especially on long trips.
The Middle Lane
The middle lane is for people who are merging left or right, who want to drive slightly faster than folks in the right lane but not as fast as the speed demons on the left, and for trucks. It’s also a good spot to hang out if you don’t quite know which lane you’ll need to be in to accommodate road changes (i.e. adding/splitting lanes, major intersections).
The middle lane should be a fluid space. If you’re in the middle lane, you should be going highway speed (i.e. the speed of traffic, which may not be the speed limit). You should be prepared to accept people merging around you. If you can’t do those things, move right.
I personally would not hang out in the middle lane during inclement weather. That’s a time to move right unless you’re on a very well maintained road with good paint and reflectors.
The Left Lane
The left lane is for getting places in a hurry. If you’re not prepared to drive at least ten miles over the speed limit, stay the hell out of the left lane. Remember that driving, more than many other activities, is made safer as long as everyone is behaving as expected. Going slow in the left lane is unexpected, and is a great way to remodel your rear bumper.
The left lane is, somewhat paradoxically, one of the least stressful places to hang out on the highway. People generally travel at acceptable speeds, and merge events aren’t as frequent — there’s not as much to distract or frustrate you in the left lane on an interstate. Unfortunately this does make it more dangerous since accidents in the left lane almost by default occur at higher speeds and involve more surprised drivers.
Personally I use the left lane for long trips. It actually doesn’t make much difference if you drive fast over a short distance; anything less than thirty miles or so and you won’t notice more than a couple minutes’ difference in your trip times.² But for long trips, the left lane can shave tens of minutes or more off your arrival time, which is enough to be desirable.
Use your damn blinkers and don’t make sudden moves. Don’t merge into any space that is less than three cars lengths between cars. Also don’t trust your mirrors, move your head and look before your merge. That’s pretty much all you have to know.
But seriously, use your damn blinkers. If you don’t, you’re a bad driver and you should feel bad, because there is literally no reason why you shouldn’t let other drivers know what you’re about to do.
Highways require a certain amount of decision-making space between cars. This is just math; your brain can only react to things on a millisecond timeline, and then physics comes into play as you try to stop a two-ton object traveling at 60 mph. You need some space to notice and then react to situations in front of you.
Long story short: keep about three car lengths between you and the car in front of you once you’re going more than, say, 45 mph. Any more than that and people will merge into the space, defeating the point. Any less and it’s too short a distance for you to react.
Now, there are a lot of dumb people driving around, and there are a lot of people who make mistakes too. At some point someone is going to do something stupid around you on the highway, and you’re going to get steamed about it. It’s perfectly natural.
But let it go. Fast. Road rage is distracting, and you don’t need distractions while driving (see the next section). You definitely don’t need to do stupid things in response to road rage, like tailgate the guy in front of you, cut someone off, or start a brawl in the middle of the freeway. None of those things help, and most run the risk of putting you (or someone else) in the hospital and/or jail. Just don’t go there.
If you find yourself experiencing road rage a LOT, like every time you drive, I would seriously consider seeing a therapist and working out the issue. Remember that sometimes the body likes being angry; rage can be a drug for some people. And like all drugs, if overindulged it does not improve your life.
Distracted driving is when you’re doing anything in the car that takes your eyes or brain off the road. That’s bad, m’kay? At highway speeds, you’re covering about a hundred feet per second. So if you look away for three seconds, you’ve covered a football field. Hopefully you haven’t run over the quarterback on the way.
So here are some “don’ts” for driving in general, and especially for highway driving:
- Don’t text.
- Don’t try to dial a phone.
- Don’t turn around in your seat.
- Don’t fiddle around with stuff behind you in the car.
- Don’t watch movies or read.
- Don’t headbang to music.
- Don’t have sex.
If you feel the burning need to do any of these things, that’s why God made rest areas and gas stations (and, for the last point, hotels). In other words, get off the highway and stop the car in a safe place before doing anything that requires more than a second’s worth of your full attention.
SLOW DOWN, move to the right, and put on your lights and emergency blinkers. You need to be going slow enough to see at least a hundred feet in front of you. If you can’t do that at any speed, get off the road.
If you’re driving along and your car starts acting up or you urgently need to stop, use the right curb to pull over if safely possible. If you don’t think you can make it to the right curb then and only then should you consider pulling off on the left-side median. If you can avoid it at all, do not stop in the middle of the road. Always use emergency blinkers if you are having problems.
Once you are stopped, call the highway patrol; shockingly there is more to their job than just giving tickets, and helping motorists in distress is one of those duties.
Don’t be Dumb
Last but not least, just don’t be an idiot. Don’t drag race down a crowded highway. Don’t weave in and out of traffic just for funsies. Don’t drive drunk, high, or if you’re about to fall over from exhaustion. Don’t straddle lanes or swerve around within your lane; if you can’t keep the vehicle between the lines while sober, it’s time to stop driving. Period.
You are in charge of a couple of tons of steel, glass, plastic, and flammable liquids when you’re on the highway. It’s your responsibility to avoid becoming a highway statistic; more than 30,000 people die on the roads every year. Following these simple rules will help a lot to keep you from becoming one of them.
¹For this article I’m going to assume you passed Driver’s Ed. That lets me skip a lot of simple stuff, like how to hold a steering wheel.
²Over 100 miles the difference between 30 mph and 60 mph will cut your trip time roughly in half (1 hour 40 minutes vs. 3 hours and 30 minutes), but the difference between 60 and 70 mph will only net you a savings of 18 minutes. So if you only have to go two miles, you’re only saving thirty seconds or so by going 70 vs. 60.