Freeway, highway, and interstate are terms often used interchangeably, but they actually refer to various roadways that each have their own unique traits. Without traveling down a rabbit hole of minutiae, the main differences come down to lanes, speed limits, location, and which governing body pays for construction and maintenance.
Generally speaking, highways are funded locally, either by the state, county, or city. Interstates, on the other hand, are part of the Interstate Highway System and funded by the federal government. Interstates were developed in part to provide mobility for military operations. This is the main reason why Alaska and Hawaii have them, as they connect military bases, ports, and airports.
In this article, we’ll use “freeway” as the catch-all term and focus on driving tips for multi-lane, restricted-access roads. These will be roadways that connect major cities and require on- and off-ramp usage.
How to Enter and Exit a Freeway
Vehicles come in all shapes and sizes. Accordingly, their performance varies. The purpose of a freeway on-ramp is to accommodate vehicles that accelerate slowly as well as fast, giving every driver the same opportunity to merge safely into the flow of traffic.
It is vital that you merge from the ramp onto the freeway at the same speed as the vehicles traveling in the right lane of the freeway. Merging at a slower (or faster) rate than freeway traffic flow is a recipe for potential disaster. Most on-ramps are engineered to allow drivers enough time to accelerate and gain momentum so that when merging occurs, vehicles are entering the freeway at freeway speeds.
If you do not match freeway speeds, drivers who are already on the freeway may need to brake suddenly, accelerate unexpectedly, or change lanes entirely to avoid a collision with your merging vehicle. Consider the on-ramp as the one place that “flooring it” won’t automatically be frowned upon.
When exiting the freeway, follow the same rules (but instead of speeding up, slow down). Do not, however, decrease your speed until you’ve reached the off-ramp. Lowering your speed while you’re still technically on the freeway can cause issues in the same way that merging too slowly can.
Off-ramps are for deceleration purposes and typically terminate at a yield sign, stop sign, or stoplight. If you are entering a city or town, watch for slower-moving traffic, pedestrians, etc.
Freeway Speeds and Lane Selection
While there are indeed speed limits on the freeway, “limit” can be a gray area. Even the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) states in its Summary of Speed Laws that the basic speed rule “requires vehicle operators to drive at a speed that is reasonable and prudent.”In other words, you may need to drive slower or faster than the posted limit, depending on the situation.
That said, the standard guidelines of freeway driving are:
- Keep right except when passing
- Use the farthest left lane only to pass
- Do not tailgate
- Do not drive in another vehicle’s blind spot
The right lanes of a freeway are for slower traffic. In many states, semi-trucks are restricted to the far-right lanes because they are large, slow-moving vehicles. But the same can be said for any motorist traveling at a slower rate of speed. For example, if traffic flow to your right is traveling faster than you are, you’re in the wrong lane.
The left lanes of a freeway are for faster-moving vehicles. Although colloquially referred to as the “fast lane,” the farthest left lane is for passing. And if you are passing other cars while in the left lane, do not stay there indefinitely. There will always be someone faster coming up behind you.
Alternatively, squatting in the fast lane with the intent of slowing down speeders will do more harm than good. Squatting prevents others from passing slower vehicles, creating a backup and unnecessary traffic. Eventually, frustrated drivers will merely go around you. And if they change lanes too hastily, a crash may occur with another vehicle.
Understanding Freeway Signs
In addition to standard signs for speed limits, interchanges, and entrance/exit ramps, other signage warns of hazards and dangerous conditions. For example, inclines, declines, and curves sometimes require slower speeds.
Traveling uphill doesn’t mean you have to go full throttle to maintain your speed, but you do need to push harder on the accelerator, or your vehicle will start slowing down, turning you into the cause of a traffic bottleneck. If you’d rather not push harder to maintain your momentum, keep to the right where you can safely travel slowly and, eventually, you’ll reach the crest.
On downhill grades, watch that speedometer. Not only can you easily surpass the speed limit on a steep downgrade, but law enforcement likes to set up speed traps at the bottom of hills for this very reason.
When it comes to curves, if you can’t see the road ahead, don’t drive faster than the posted speed limit. Some warning signs feature an image of a truck tipping over. Although a small car can likely handle the freeway curvature at a faster rate of speed, consider the speed limit on those signs as guidance.
Addressing Road Rage and Other Safety Tips
According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), nearly 80 percent of drivers admit to experiencing road rage. That equates to approximately 8 million drivers in a bad mood on any given day.
According to AAA, tailgating, yelling at another driver, and honking are the top three retaliatory behaviors. While it’s one thing to be angry about a situation, it’s another to exhibit aggressive driving.
Being a safe and attentive driver can minimize road rage incidents. As a rule, don’t impede traffic, stay away from potential hazards, be alert, and always use your turn signal. Being safe is especially important when entering or exiting the freeway or changing lanes in heavy traffic. On congested freeways, check your blind spots, particularly for motorcyclists. Though lane splitting and even riding on the shoulder is inherently dangerous, many states allow motorcyclists to do this in heavy traffic situations.
In case of an emergency or vehicle breakdown, activate the hazard lights, use your turn signal, and pull off the freeway. Unless your vehicle is inoperable, do not remain in the lane blocking traffic.
In most cases, the right shoulder offers the most considerable amount of room and is where emergency telephones, if available, will be located. In rural areas, the left shoulder may provide a wide berth. Choose the most accessible and safest option based on your situation.
Also, have an emergency kit and use flares or reflective triangles for increased visibility. Likewise, if you see a disabled vehicle, give them room by moving over a lane. Moving over is not only a safety courtesy but the law in many states.
Freeways serve a single purpose: to get us from Point A to Point B in the shortest time possible. They are convenient and expedient, whether traveling across the country or across town. Regardless of the distance, the rules remain the same, and there’s no need to be intimidated by the higher speeds.
Practicing common sense, keeping a safe distance, being courteous, and not engaging in aggressive behavior can go a long way toward ensuring that you arrive safely at your destination.