Merging: A Nationwide Driving Issue

Merging: A Nationwide Driving Issue

Merging: A Nationwide Driving Issue

A safe merge takes eye scanning, situational awareness, planning, anticipation, mirror use, signal use, consideration, speed matching and full attention.

Andy Pilgrim started the Traffic Safety Education Foundation in 2008. He is a professional race driver and a contributing writer/vehicle tester to Automobile Magazine.

First of all, I hope everyone had a safe and happy holiday season. If 2017 goes as fast as 2016 then it will be Thanksgiving in about what feels like a week.

I end up driving in at least half of the U.S. States every year on my travels. This schedule, which has been going on for more 20 years, gives me the opportunity to observe U.S. driving habits and behaviors on a pretty wide scale.

We know the massive increase in distracted driving over the last eight years has been enabled by the smartphone and a very weak U.S. driving test. Distracted drivers using smartphones — hands free or not — have been responsible for countless collisions, resulting in thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries. One of the driving tasks most negatively affected by distraction, which needlessly impacts traffic flow all over the country, is merging.

A safe and skilled merge takes eye scanning, situational awareness, planning, anticipation, mirror use, signal use, consideration, speed matching and full attention.  Obviously a distracted driver is incapable of giving merging or any other driving tasks their full attention.

Most drivers are not good at merging even without distractions and these issues add hours to commutes all over the country every day. I have had discussions with thousands of parents about merging and the majority of them have little idea how to merge correctly, mainly because they were never taught. Merging is not found in any road driving test in the U.S.!

I'm going to describe how to execute a merge on a basic freeway on ramp. Think about the majority of on ramps you see in the US.  I'm not talking about the older short ones I see a lot in the North East, nor combination on/off merge ramps and not the ones with traffic lights at the beginning of them to help traffic spacing. 

By the way, this tip is for all drivers. It certainly applies to teens and new drivers, but even if you’ve been driving for years, put yourself in this scenario:

As you enter the ramp, you need to make sure you have two cars lengths between you and the vehicle in front. Turn on your signal. If you are too close to the vehicle in front, you can only brake or slow down — but not accelerate if you need to.

Tailgating down a merge ramp is asking for trouble. The majority of all the crashes we see on freeways are nose to tail impacts, so we know tailgating is epidemic. Always leave at least 2 seconds of space to the vehicle ahead, regardless of speed.

We also have to make use of the side and rear view mirrors to merge safely. Mirrors need to be adjusted correctly and most drivers in the U.S. forget to do this. If you sit in your vehicle and glance into your mirrors and can see the side of your vehicle, your mirrors are not adjusted correctly.

As you drive down the ramp, glance over to gauge the speed of traffic flow in the lane you’re merging into.  Processing and matching the speed of traffic is critical to smooth merging. Also, look for holes in traffic to merge into while glancing well ahead to see where the merge lane ends; you don’t want to get stuck with nowhere to go. 

Matching speed correctly means you can merge seamlessly and freeway traffic flow is unaffected. With practice, merging into even tight spaces becomes second nature.  Never forget to cancel the turn signal. 

I completely understand there is a responsibility on the part of freeway traffic to let people in and generally work with merging traffic. When on the freeway, I am always looking for vehicles coming down the entry ramp. I judge their acceleration rates and speed. I might move into another lane to give them room, or modify my speed up or down, to make things easier for everyone around.

I do not speed up to block vehicles from entering in front of me. I have never understood this type of aggressive driving behavior; it’s completely inconsiderate and often dangerous.  Conversely, if someone lets me in, I acknowledge them with a wave of thanks.

I have spoken to many new and even experienced drivers who tell me merging is like a nightmare to them. Consistent practice and effort is needed to become skilled at seamless merging.  If you know your teen — or yourself — is not good at merging, I suggest you go out on a weekend morning early, or later in the evening to practice (not during rush hour).

One or two bad experiences should not stop your teen from trying to get better.  Practice really does help. I have more helpful information about merging and correct mirror adjustment in The Parent Driving Zone DVD.  For a free copy go to

Exit ramps don’t cause the same massive problems as on ramps. When I do see issues around exit ramps, it is due to lack of preparation. Numerous times I’ve seen people almost coming to a stop trying to move across five lanes of traffic to make their exit, causing complete mayhem behind — all because they waited too late. Plan ahead and start moving towards the right lane (exit lane) at least 2 miles before you need to exit.

Let’s all try harder to work on our merging skills and cut out all distracted driving. We can and should be able to do much better. You can even make it one of your resolutions!

Be safe out there and a very Happy New Year to everyone. See you in 2017!


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