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What's the proper way to merge on the freeway?

This week on Car Talk, Brian from Kentucky wants to know what is proper freeway etiquette. Do you stay in the left lane as long as you can? Or just gun it and hope for the best! And what’s the most efficient way for cars to merge?

Share your experiences on and off the ramp.

I find it appropriate that Tom and Ray, being from Massachusetts, ask this question of others.

The proper freeway etiquette is to not use the left lane unless passsing, perform all actions with respect for the space of others, and only pass on the soft shoulder on route 3.

The proper way to merge is to bring your speed up to the flow of traffic while on the ramp and slide into a sufficient sized hole between cars. Since Mass drivers will intentionally close the holes when they see you on the ramp, just pull out in front of them and make them move.

The simple answer is use the “on ramp” to get your car up to the same speed as the traffic in the “driving lanes”. Then before the on ramp quits on you merge into the flow of traffic. I like to picture two gears at the same speed coming together.

However there is no simple answer because many other factors come into play. What if the on ramp is very short? Perhaps the ongoing traffic is a huge semi going 80 mph? Perhaps you are driving a VW camper bus which can’t get up to more than 45 mph by the time the exit ramp closes out? What if the car in front of you stops or slows down on the ramp?

Handling merging is one place I like to have a car with power. Rapid acceleration is one way to cope with a number of issues. In the semi coming at 80 mph I let it pass then hammer the gas and pull in behind it. With a slower car in front of me I drift back and increase the distance behind me and the slower car. Once it merges I pick a spot in the oncoming traffic and use the power needed to merge into it. Therefore the toughest one’s are the short on ramp and driving a very slow car or truck.

If you can’t merge on a short on ramp sometimes you get stuck and have to wait out a break in the traffic. Now starting from a dead stop means petal to the floor once that break in traffic occurs.

The super slow car is such a challenge that it becomes almost fun. I had a VW camper circa 1971. I’d find many on ramps have an uphill grade so I’d run the VW up to the rev limiter in each gear. I could usually get it up to close to 50mph using the entire ramp so sometimes I’d have to merge into any gap available even I wasn’t up to freeway speed. All I could do was have my 4 way flashers on to let oncoming traffic know I was not up to speed. Most merges were not too hairy but a few in the VW camper were dicey but no accidents resulted.

The proper way to merge is to bring your speed up to the flow of traffic while on the ramp and slide into a sufficient sized hole between cars. Since Mass drivers will intentionally close the holes when they see you on the ramp, just pull out in front of them and make them move.

Absolutely! I will add that many people seem to think that they should not reach highway speed until they make it onto the highway - i.e. they creeeeep down the entry lane until they see a hole. People who do that should know that this is not a safe way to do things - exactly the opposite! It is dangerous and makes a mess. If you’re not comfy getting up to highway speed and entering at the same time - take alternate routes and stay off of the limited access highways.

People on the highway should take the rule about left lane for passing only and certainly include entering traffic as a passing instance - i.e. any time you’re coming up on an entry ramp - be ready to make a hole if an entering vehicle needs it.

And people already in the left lane should be attentive to making a hole for those on the right - so that they can make a hole for those entering.

If everyone does this - that is what keeps a highway flowing and everyone gets there faster and safer!

As usual, I have to agree with Mountainbike.
However, I am wondering about the wording of the title and the text of the original post from Tom and Ray.

The proper way to merge on a freeway and the topic of using the left lane are two separate issues, unless one is talking about freeways where drivers entering the freeway have to merge into the left lane, rather than the right lane.

As mountainbike stated (and as Driver Ed testbooks will attest), the proper way to merge onto a freeway is to accelerate while in the merging lane so that your speed matches that of the roadway’s traffic, and then to find a large enough space to merge safely between vehicles.

Just yesterday, I had the misfortune to be in back of a young woman in an older Hyundai Tiburon who apparently thought that the proper way to merge onto I-287 in Central NJ was to proceed at a speed of 45 mph, despite the prevailing traffic speed on that road of 65-70 mph. She put me and my passengers in danger by not accelerating adequately, and seeing the vehicles approaching in my rear-view mirror at high speed was very unsettling, to say the least.

As to the issue of the left lane, I refer to existing traffic laws in most states, which require that a driver “keep to the right unless passing another vehicle”. This rather non-complex statement seems to confuse many drivers who apparently believe that they can use the left lane of a freeway as a good place to take a leisurely drive, while faster traffic veers around them to the right.

I tend to drive at the speed limit, or slightly above the limit. I use the right lane unless it is clogged with slower-moving traffic. When I am driving in the right lane, if I see a vehicle entering the roadway, I execute a “complimentary lane-change”, moving to my left if it is safe to do so. This allows the vehicle entering the roadway more room to maneuver safely.

When I pass another vehicle–whether I am in the center lane or the left lane–I promptly move back to the right lane as soon as it is safe to do so, thus allowing others to pass me if they wish to do so.

I guess that I must be doing something right, since I have not had a vehicular accident of any kind since 1976, when a female driver bumped me from the rear at a traffic light. I have not had an accident that was attributible to me since 1971. That represents well over 470,000 miles of accident-free driving.


After listening to today’s radio program, it is obvious that the original post was even more poorly worded than anyone could have imagined. The question should have been something along the lines of, “When you see signs indicating that the left lane ends just ahead, should you merge ahead of time, or wait until the last second, thereby cutting off those who merged in a civilized, orderly manner”?

Now that we know the real intent of the question, I have to agree with Tom & Ray. Those who wait until the last possible moment for merging are selfish, self-centered individuals who believe that it is their right to “jump the line” so to speak. However, I don’t agree with the way that the question was worded by T & R (or, more likely the way that one of their assistants worded it).

There was a lot of construction on the interstates in Pennsylvania this summer, and whenever one of the lanes was closed, there were signs that instructed drivers to use BOTH lanes until the point of merging. Of course, no one did that.

I just heard this show segment and the original description of the question was not clear at all.

The question is what to do when merging is required due to a lane closure.

The post from Stancyk above gives what ought to be the answer - to merge at or near where the lane closure happens.

But that means people need to know how to merge, which most don’t. The norm - in most places - seems to be that people don’t want to allow cars that need to merge into their lane, so they crowd and close holes. The problem is that this is exactly what produces the traffic snarls associated with lane closures. What will happen to mergers when they aren’t left a hole? They have to reduce their speed - end result everyone has to reduce speed - often as it turns out to zero.

The rule that will keep the road moving often does mean losing some speed, but in the long run works better. Everyone has known it at least since kindergarten - its called “take turns” - go every other car. Every car in a lane next to a merging lane needs to make a hole in front of them for one car - either by using the next lane over or just by adjusting speed and letting one car in. Nothing will be perfect in all circumstances, but thinking that not making room will get you there faster is absolutely bass-ackwards thinking.

I think instead of ‘left lane’ they meant ‘entrance lane’, that’s the only way this make sense. And does anyone remember the same question answered by C&C several years ago? Anyway, as already said, accel to matching speed while on the ramp, then merge, not waiting until the end. All done with reasonable haste.

In regards to a lost lane due to construction, both lanes should continue right to the point of merge and then the lane that is not closed should take turns with the merging cars. Have you ever been on a highway when the construction signs point out a mile in advance, “right lane closed 1 mile ahead” and everyone starts to get in the left lane at that point and pretty soon the left lane is totally backed up for a couple miles while the right lane is empty? How terribly inefficient!

Tom and Ray, you didn’t fully state your question. This isn’t about merging ONTO the freeway, it’s how to handle construction when you have to merge down to, say, one lane. Thanks for Josie who explained it fully on her post. Here’s my answer, now that I understand the question:

The way to get the most cars through this kind of situation in a given amount of time is to fill up both lanes and merge alternately at the end, so say traffic engineers. This is like what you do at a ski resort, multiple lanes of skiers merge at the lift. So neither the ‘merge as soon as you know it’s coming’ nor the ‘speed past all those suckers who merged early’ approach is correct.

I have experienced exactly what you describe in PA, and it makes me NUTS!! Even when directly instructed, drivers crowd into the non-closing lane and it backs up, and then when I use the open (soon to be closed) lane and get to the merge point, I receive a ton of nasty looks and people blocking me from merging. Once I was driving with a friend who merged early, so I asked her why she didn’t stay in the open lane to the merge point. She explained that she thought she was being polite by merging early; she didn’t want to seem like a road hog. I argued that the other lane was still open, and it wouldn’t be excessive at all to utilize it, but she felt uncomfortable…she didn’t want to tick off any of the other drivers who’d also already merged. Talk about following the herd!

Ah, yes, fall is here and the orange barrels are in full bloom…

I like the analogy of the teeth of two meshed gears coming together. Ubfortunately, on the roads, all the drivers use gears with different tooth sizes. Imagine if you will a manual transmission where all the gears have differing tooth sizes,

Traffic engineers are the ones who came up with rotaries. And split roads with “jughandles” at each end. You follow the advice of that bunch?

I don’t want to be the “moderators of mergers” when a lane closure requires people from the right to merge with the people already in the left.

Now the “lefties” probably knew about the closure from their “devices” or traveling the route before or maybe its on the radio.

Because the lefties were paying attention they have a bit of a attitude to the blissful right lane drivers who only find out about the closure when they see the sign.

These late righties must beg,hope and pray that someone takes pity on them and lets them in,myself I place a limit on letting 3 cars in,after that the other"on the ball" lefties can contribute their 3 cars.

Minnesota Dept of Transportation recommends using both lanes.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation?s new Dynamic Late Merge System instructs drivers to take turns when entering a single lane closure situation to help reduce delay time in work zones.

This ?take-turn? strategy often referred to as the ?zipper? approach is used when traffic is congested. In this instance, drivers should use both lanes all the way to the designated merge point and then take turns merging.

?Drivers can help reduce frustration in work zones if they follow the directions on the signs; otherwise, the system won?t be as effective,? said William Servatius, Mn/DOT?s workzone safety specialist. ?In some back-up situations, the signs have instructed drivers to use both lanes up until the merge point, but we?ve seen drivers merge too early ? probably in fear that they won?t be let in by other drivers.?

Research has shown that 15 percent of drivers admitted to straddling lanes in order to block late mergers in construction zones.

?Many people think it is unfair for them to be waiting in traffic and another driver gets to merge before them,? said Servatius. ?We?re hoping that this aggressive driver behavior will decrease if they see the signs instructing drivers to do so.?

The fully automated system consists of using remote traffic microwave sensors and a Doppler radar giving drivers instructions via changeable message signs on when to merge and how to merge according to the current state of traffic. Mn/DOT tested the system during last year?s construction season.

?So far this system has proven to help traffic flow by decreasing queue lengths as much as 35 percent. It has also reduced lane-changing conflicts and sudden-stop crashes,? said Craig Mittelstadt, Office of Construction and Innovative Contracting. ?However, it can only work properly if drivers comply with the messages.?

The Dynamic Late Merge System is being tested at the following locations:

* Highway 52 and Lafayette Road in St. Paul
* Interstate 35 south of the Twin Cities

Mn/DOT also says they are hoping motorists will use the zipper approach whether message signs are posted or not in any drop lane situations when traffic is congested.

?We appreciate motorists wanting to merge early so they can avoid unsafe merging maneuvers, and they should merge early under normal traffic speeds,? said Mittelstadt. ?But when the roadway is congested, drivers should use both lanes all the way to the designated merge point and then take turns merging.?
Minnesota is one of the first states to use the Dynamic Late Merge System

The merging vehicle should follow the solid white ramp entrance lines and enter soon after they end if there is space. Others should let them in. Everybody should use all traffic lanes until at the merge point, where it’s 1 for 1 alternating. This especially applies in a construction merge situation.

I totally disagree with Tom’s answer on the show. If there are two lanes, you may take either one. If people are so insecure and sheep-like that they line up for miles in the one lane that eventually is the sole lane, then the deserve to be passed. I drive in the empty lane, pass of them miles of lemmings, and then gently merge at the end. It is legal and proper. Everyone should use both lanes and then take turns to merge into the final single lane.

Here’s my mail to the show:


Hi guys. One of today’s questions was, when merging at a closed lane, should you get in line early? Or, should you put some extra traffic in the empty lane by merging down near the end?

Clearly this is …a Religion!

Should you be “Good,” by getting in line with everyone else? Or should you become “Evil” by racing down to the end of the empty lane and then butt in at the head of the line? The “Good” drivers should then become vigilantes, and block the “Evil cheaters” from merging?

You told a story of Medford 93 exit and a guy in a BMW convertible with his top down, so you could actually converse as he tried to butt in. You answered that the “evil cheating” is legal, yet immoral, and you recommended blocking them from merging.

Wrong answer, wrong because there is a third option.

There’s Good, Evil, and then there’s “Zen.” In the “Zen” option you do something totally different, and your simple action (heh) …destroys the good/evil dichotomy! Shatters competitive worldview! Transforms hundreds of drivers into “fellow humans!” It’s a Third Path. Sounds unbelievable, but I’ve done the “Zen” trick myself many times. Apparently it’s also a secret known to long-haul truckers.

This third option has been much discussed by traffic authorities, and even tested and found correct by Federal Highway Admin. (But they never tell drivers this. Drivers are supposed to be Unwashed Masses, so if traffic authorities actually communicated with the public, what? …would our infectious stupidity contaminate the traffic experts? Better keep away from us!)

Anyway, here’s the 3rd-option Zen answer:

Use the empty lane, but do not race to the end under any circumstances. Instead drive slowly. Choose another car in the full lane, and camp out next to them, inching along as they do. When you get to the end of the empty lane, merge. You didn’t cheat, so they won’t block you.

When you do this, something else happens. Other “cheaters” get stuck behind you. They move as you do. New drivers arriving at the exit then get into your shorter lane, and quickly both lanes fill up behind you. And …and then “cheating” becomes totally impossible! There is no empty lane anymore. Both lanes move at the same speed, and drivers act civilized, rapidly taking turns merging down at the far end. The average flow speeds up, because no longer are there any slow-motion fights between Evil cheaters and Good vigilantes. After you yourself merge, the new pattern persists.

As a Black Belt martial arts commuter, you have gently poked the weakest spot of hundreds of other commuters, causing their competitive asshattery to evaporate like the illusion it always was.

Here’s a website where this issue was tested against the “empty lane block the cheaters” philosophy. Late merge wins! :

Thanks for making me “website of the week” on a few years back. I’ve now got a domain name , and I was even interviewed by Discovery Channel “The Truth about Traffic” last week.

I think it’s illegal to block cheaters who try to merge, but it’s not illegal for them to race down to the end of an empty lane. Did you just admit to habitual illegal driving on your show, and even recommend that others break the law in the same way? (It might be a state law only, and not illegal in Mass.)

In all circumstances, those who take any action against the perceived “immoral behavior” of other drivers …are aggressive drivers. If you line up in a lane and block all merging by closing up ranks, then you are an aggressive driver. If you take any actions to punish another driver, you are agressive, that’s the definition of “aggressive.”

I think much of the problem is caused by incorrect perception of other drivers motivations. It’s not possible to read the mind of another driver, so very often mistakes are made, and that other driver’s actions are genuinely innocent. If we attempt to punish their behavior, we’re lashing out against innocent victims. We’re morally wrong (and probably doing things which are outright illegal.)

Looking at mankind in general, I notice that usually the most evil actions are performed by people who are trying to do good. “To do evil, a human being must first of all believe that what he is doing is good.” - Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn A.I. Solzenitzyn must have spend lots of time observing fellow commuters in heavy rush hour traffic.

We were driving in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota a few weeks ago. As we neared construction zones, we saw signs asking people to stay in lanes until the merge point, then have alternate at that point.

As I understand it, the original question wasn’t about merging onto the freeway (from an on-ramp), but how to merge when approaching a closed lane, as is common when nearing a construction zone or accident scene.