• Defensive Driving Rule #60: Use the Center Lane for Safety

    If you have a choice whether to use a controlled access roadway (or freeway, expressway, etc), or a city boulevard, you should choose the controlled access road, because your potential for a collision is less. A freeway has no intersections, and, with few exceptions, traffic is typically moving at similar speeds. This contributes to safer travel.

    But what's the best lane to use on the freeway? I suggest that in most cases, the center lane is your safest bet. While you read my advice on this topic, put your thinking cap on. This particular rule is an exercise in logic and experience, and there aren't many statistics that bear on the topic. You may have a different point of view, but I want you to think about it -- just as you should every aspect of the driving task.

    Some driving instructors advise drivers to always use the right lane. I don't usually agree, but I see their point. (And when I'm on my motorcycle, I often use this advice, because of other overriding concerns.) It's based on the idea that speeds are slower in the right lane. Therefore if there is a collision, the results will be less serious and result in fewer injuries. However, near on/off ramps, the right lane is used for preparing to enter and exit -- it is the closest equivalent to an intersection on the freeway. With vehicles constantly transitioning on and off, there is an increased potential for collisions -- even if usually they are minor ones. My goal is to avoid ALL collisions.

    Other instructors suggest the left lane is safest, because there are fewer vehicles over there. But we call that lane the "high speed lane" or the "passing lane," right? If you have a collision there, it can have serious results because of the higher speeds. Second, in many states, it is not legal to drive in the left lane unless you are passing someone -- vehicles that are not passing are required to drive to the right. Is there any such thing as a "high speed lane?" Is the speed limit any different in the left lane? The answer to both questions is, "No." Is it legal to speed in order to pass someone? It is not, contrary to popular belief.

    I believe the center lane or lanes are the safest. One of your goals should be to avoid getting "boxed in." Constantly adjust your speed as necessary to maintain a safety cushion all around your vehicle. Don't let others drive in your blind spots, and don't drive in theirs. In the center lanes, you will find it is easier to ensure you have a "way out" when you need it -- because you'll have two ways to go. If you work to maintain your space, then the only vehicles to worry about are the ones you are passing, or who are passing you. With a lane on each side, you have increased odds of a clear path if you suddenly need one.

    In the center lanes, you avoid the vehicle conflicts that occur in the right lane, and you are out of the way of the speeders and tailgaters common to the left lane. Anyone coming up behind can get around, left or right, if they want. All things considered, the center lane is where I want to be.

    Keep the shiny side up!
    Comments 8 Comments
    1. bluehdmc's Avatar
      bluehdmc -
      I have to disagree with this one. As a tractor-trailer driver, in many states trucks cannot drive or pass in the left lane of a 3 or more lane highway. Many drivers just "cruise" in the middle lane, they will not move over when you flash the headlights and usually a driver has to wait untill there is a large enough opening to pass them on the right. (which is also illeagal in some states).
    1. Southwest Dave's Avatar
      Southwest Dave -
      Hello and welcome to the RTA forums !

      Here in the UK we call them "middle laners" and they are about as popular as the tax man or parking ticket attendant when it comes to a debate. Here in the UK it is illegal to "undertake" in any situation other than when the traffic is tailed back in a queue and your lane is moving [albeit slowly]. This is one of the most frustrating things on our roads as you get 1 car in the middle lane, a line of trucks behind it who can not pass either side and all other "slower cars" moving across into the overtaking lane causing brake lights to go on and tail backs all while the nearside lane is empty !!!!

      Unfortunately this is not a rare occurrence, more the normal in fact, and although there is nothing to back this up I am quite sure that this behaviour causes more accidents on our Motorways than drivers slightly over the speed limit and should become a law enforced issue.
    1. entbeard77's Avatar
      entbeard77 -
      I also disagree with this rule for many reasons:
      - Maybe it's safer not to make many lane changes, but it allows frustrated and raging blocked drivers to pass you on your RIGHT side which i think more dangerous than changing lanes (where you control the situation and not the other driver).
      - It CREATES the habit of NOT changing lanes (almost at all), and NOT looking into mirrors. Most of middle-laners i see are lazy drivers that doesn't even notice they have tailgaters.
      - As an engineer i think someone designed the road to have 3 or 4 lanes with a reason (not just for spending money) and using the center lane you are using two lanes instead of one (if people respect laws won't pass you on your right side, so right lane would be useless, and in a 3 lane freeway it means you use 66% of it!) reducing capacity and creating blockings when two vehicles faster than you approach from behind (specially if you are one of those lazy drivers that doesn't look your mirrors or are afraid of changing to right lane when you see this). Doesn't matter how fast you go, there's always someone going faster. When you go near speed limit, passings could last many hundreds of meters (and seconds), and it enlarges the chance of someone passing you is blocking the left lane for a while. Blocking the road this way creates rage on agressive drivers, and since they can't pass you, you are not getting rid of them, and that's a dangerous situation to make it last long.
      - When there's not too much traffic you don't need to make too many lane changes if you stick to the right, and if there's lots of cars in the road, more the reason not to use two lanes instead of one. Don't be greedy, one lane is enough for you to drive safe, and you have to respect other drivers' right to use the road.
    1. AZBuck's Avatar
      AZBuck -
      Both those items go to the heart of defensive driving and just good driving in general. Unfortunately, both are in terribly short supply in America's roads. The tip here to use the middle lane, works best in urban conditions where there are many exits/entrances and lots of traffic. Through vehicles should NOT be riding in the right hand lane denying access to merging traffic. That is a simple courtesy. By the same token, in those few instances where there are three or more lanes in open country and interchanges are several miles apart, it is - as others have pointed out - extremely discourteous to hog the passing lanes when you are not passing another vehicle, and are in fact one of the slower cars on the road. The essence of good driving is not adhering to a hard and fast set of rules, but driving with common sense and courtesy.

    1. vertical's Avatar
      vertical -
      As a safety engineer, I strongly disagree, especially with the "constantly changing speeds" part. It is much easier for other drivers to anticipate your actions if you maintain a constant speed. Changing speeds makes it much more difficult and dangerous for them to judge closure rates and to pass. That is half the battle: Don't do something other drivers aren't expecting.

      Second, the reason it is either illegal (though rarely enforced) or not recommended to pass on the right is that it is much more difficult for the driver being passed to see the passing vehicle. Your entire vehicle (and perhaps a few passengers) block your view, and the mirror is farther away, making it difficult to judge closure rates, especially at night, and giving you a huge blind spot (depending on the vehicle). Vehicles WILL pass you on the right unless you travel well above the speed limit. The only option you give them is to move over TWO lanes to pass. Most won't bother.

      Nowadays, with cell phones, GPS and other distractions, you also have the potential for disaster, due to a momentary distraction, by swerving either left OR right. At least in the right lane, you will usually have rumble strips to alert you or wake you up, as well as a break-down lane giving you room to recover.**

      Also, in the middle lane of a 3 lane hwy, you are just a few feet removed from the irresponsible (and quite possibly impaired) drivers screaming along in the left lane and swerving as they chat, eat, move to the music or what have you. We all see them on just about every trip. Why not give them a wide berth? You will also avoid the state troopers screaming along without lights or siren when they are getting off shift.

      And if you suddenly need to pull over on a highway (medical problem, mechanical failure, tire blowout, etc.) in the right lane it is much simpler to maneuver into the breakdown lane, rather than worry about traffic on both sides. In a worst-case situation, being in the right lane also makes it less likely your vehicle would be involved in the most deadly of all accident scenarios: crossing into oncoming traffic.

      At night you will also get more tiring and distracting headlight glare (in side-view mirrors) in the center lane, if you are travelling at or near the speed limit. Rather than passing someone and leaving them directly behind you, with lights shrinking in intensity, you will have vehicles gaining on you from both sides, with long periods of light increasing in intensity. This can make a big difference in your alertness if you are driving for several hours (hello headache).

      Yes, in heavy merge areas you might want to temporarily move over. But for the above reasons it is not a good idea to cruise in the center lane. Highways are designed for the way people actually drive, not a perfect world. And they are designed (in the U.S.) for passing traffic to move left, and other traffic to keep right. Your vehicle is also designed that way. All you need to remember is to KEEP RIGHT except when passing. Then the truckers will be your friend, rather than trying to give you a push from behind.
    1. Dana Gale's Avatar
      Dana Gale -
      uh, how come no one just suggest that the people in the right lane going too fast should slow down. I agree that no one should be cruising at 50 in the fast lane, but it is pretty annoying to be in the fast lane doing just under 75 and look in my rear view mirror and see someone gaining on me quickly, and eventually pass me(after I move over) at close to 90. THAT is the danger on the highways, NOT the people doing the speed limit, or slightly above. Somehow the rules have been twisted and suddenly the law abiding citizen is the bad guy. I no longer drive in the left lane, and am constantly amazed at the speed people drive. Watch a few videos like this on you tube(should be required before someone gets on the road) and think about it next time you feel like you are in a hurry. People forget that a car is a weapon and do not take the act of getting behind a wheel, and all that is implies, very seriously.
    1. Dana Gale's Avatar
      Dana Gale -
    1. Dana Gale's Avatar
      Dana Gale -
      and I meant people in the left lane going to fast, not right lane. sorry.