Freeway Driving Demands Special Skills

Freeways are designed to minimize the risk of collisions. They separate traffic, eliminate intersections, and prohibit pedestrians and slower vehicles. Consequently, there are fewer crashes on freeways. However, the high speeds and heavy volume make freeway accidents more severe.

To stay safe on the freeway, drivers must maintain their vehicles and make complex decisions quickly at critical moments.

Is Your Vehicle Freeway-Ready?

Highway driving at higher speed generates heat and stresses the mechanical parts of the car. Preventive maintenance will help protect you from costly repairs and dangerous breakdowns. Here are some prevention pointers:

Tires. Check tire pressure frequently. Carry an accurate gauge and always use the vehicle manufacturer's recommended pressure. Check tire pressure before the vehicle has been driven, when the tire is cold. Also check tires for uneven wear. Keeping tires at the pressure recommended for long-distance, high-speed travel may result in a slightly rougher ride, but it will prolong tread.

When You Gas Up. When you fill your gas tank, do a quick maintenance check. Inspect drive belts and coolant hoses for wear; check all lights for burned-out bulbs; make sure fluids are at proper levels (water in battery, radiator, windshield washer solvent, brake fluid, and power steering fluid); check the oil level in the crankcase and transmission; and ensure wipers work properly.

Choosing Your Speed

Maintaining a safe speed on the freeway requires constant attention. Traveling slower or faster than other traffic increases the risk of collisions. Go with the flow by choosing a legal speed that keeps pace with other drivers. Consider visibility, traffic, weather and road conditions. Maintaining a consistent speed will make your drive more relaxing and fuel efficient.

Drivers sometimes lose their sense of speed during extended freeway driving. It is easy to gradually increase your speed until you are traveling much faster than you realize. To avoid this risk, use cruise control or frequently check your speedometer.

Choosing Your Lane

Through traffic should use the center or left lanes so drivers exiting the freeway can use the right lane to decelerate without disrupting the flow of traffic.

Match your speed to the appropriate lane for smoother traffic flow:

  • On a two-lane freeway: use the right lane as a cruising lane and the left lane as a passing lane.
  • On a three-lane freeway: use the right lane as a lower-speed through lane, the center lane a high-speed through lane, and the left lane a passing lane.
  • Approaching interchanges: move out of the right lane if traffic permits, to avoid merging conflicts.

Changing Lanes

Change lanes as a courtesy to other drivers who want to move past you. Also change lanes to allow other drivers to merge smoothly. Adjust your speed or, if possible, move into the next lane to create a gap for other drivers to safely enter the freeway.

At freeway speeds, fast-moving vehicles can quickly enter your "blind spots." Follow these steps for safe lane changes:

  • Check for a sufficient gap between your car and the vehicle in front of you.
  • Make sure that a driver ahead or in another lane is not about to change lanes.
  • Glance behind to make sure a driver behind you is not about to pass.
  • Before moving to another lane, check inside and outside rear-view mirrors. Glance over your shoulder in the direction of the lane you want to enter to check for vehicles in your blind spots.

Minimizing Blind Spots

Reduce your blind spots by adjusting side and rear mirrors. Outside mirrors should be positioned approximately 15 degrees from the side of the car. To do this, place your head against the driver-side window and then set the left side mirror so you can just see the side of the car. Then place your head over the center console and set the right side mirror similarly. It may take a week or two to get used to these new mirror settings, but your blind spots will be much reduced.

Monitor the Big Picture

It takes four to five seconds to stop your vehicle when traveling 55 mph. To maneuver in an emergency, you must constantly monitor traffic conditions at least four to five vehicles ahead for clues to traffic tie-ups. This will give you time to stop if there is no room to maneuver around an obstacle.

Looking 20 to 30 seconds ahead gives you time to spot potential dangers, plan evasive steering maneuvers, warn traffic to the rear and slow gradually. If the road is not completely blocked, steer around an obstacle. Sudden stops increase the risk of a rear-end collision. If you must stop, tap the brakes several times to warn following vehicles.

Dealing with Breakdowns

Car trouble is frustrating under the best of circumstances, but it is especially unnerving on a busy freeway. Follow these safety tips if your vehicle breaks down on a freeway:

  • Never stop on the shoulder unless your vehicle breaks down. If you must leave the freeway, signal and drive completely onto the shoulder.
  • Raise your hood or tie a white cloth to the antenna, door handle or outside mirror to signal that you need help.
  • Turn on your hazard lights to warn traffic approaching from behind.
  • Place flares or warning triangles behind your vehicle, if it is safe to do so. Place the farthest device 100 paces (200-300 feet) from your vehicle.
  • If you re-enter the freeway from the shoulder, make sure the shoulder ahead of you is free of large debris or other vehicles. Accelerate along the shoulder, signal properly, and steer into the freeway lane when an adequate gap in traffic is available.