By October 28, 2009

Random Motorcycling Tip #06: Surviving a highway merge

“Congratulations,” my Motorcycle Safety Foundation course instructor told me after finishing my class. “You are now qualified to ride slowly around a parking lot. Stay off of the highway.”

After feeling confident enough to putter around my neighborhood and surrounding suface streets, I took to the highway. I live a good 15 – 25 miles from the majority of my friends and my place of employment. The highway is vital for me to get anywhere on two wheels, and before long I was zipping along with the rest of the world.

I often prefer riding on the highway to surface streets. Yes, the stakes are higher: crashing at 65+MPH is going to result in a more spectacular get-off than, say, 40MPH. However, traffic flows (usually) in the same direction on the highway, and I don’t have to worry about people making left hand turns in front of me like you do a surface street intersection.

Still, you have to deal with lane incursions, rapid deceleration due to accidents or emergency vehicles entering the highway, and worst of all, on-ramps and off-ramps.

Here are a few tips to staying safe when approaching an on-ramp.

  1. Break the process down into several smaller parts. You are going to have a lot of stuff to do here, so try to keep things compartmentalized and simple. It’ll be easier to remember — and easier to repeat. Repeition of safe riding behavior may save your ass someday when things go wrong and you have to rely on “muscle memory.”
  2. Slow down and set your speed before you enter the turn. On some on-ramps, this might mean slowing down before you exit the road, sometimes this means you can slow down before actually making the on-ramp turn. Once you start your turn, you will have too much to worry about and slowing down now might be dangerous and will detract from the amount of focus you can spend on other things. In any case …
  3. Make your first mirror check. Make sure that any traffic behind you is keeping a fair distance. I will step on the rear brake just enough to activate the brake lights on my bike. There isn’t much else you can do if they are still too close, but don’t change how fast you feel comfortable going.
  4. Intiate your turn. You should already know the basics of turning from your motorcycle safety course, track day, or riding technique books, etc: lean the bike, and keep your speed even. Tilt your head so that your eyes are even with the horizon. This will help your brain from becoming disoriented.
  5. Turn on your turn signal flasher as you start to straighten up, even if oncoming traffic can’t see you just yet. You’ll want to already have your turn signals blinking in case there is a problem up ahead, like a semi-truck trying to get off of the highway while an SUV full of screaming children tries to get on.
  6. Make a second mirror check. You will be close to the highway by now. You may running out of on-ramp and entering the merge zone. Remember that car behind you? If they were super aggressive and tailgating you on the on-ramp, they may jump out from behind you into the traffic lane. This can cause a real problem. You may have perceived an open lane only to have the guy behind you slide out and speed ahead. Like before, there isn’t much you can do except keep aware, and possibly stay in the merge zone later than usual — or exit the highway altogether if things get really hairy.
  7. Beware of vehicles exiting the highway. Vehicles usually slow down to enter an off-ramp, but that doesn’t mean they will slow down enough to let you in. Try to estimate your speed versus any vehicles behind you and “zipper” ahead or behind of any other traffic.
  8. Look over your shoulder and confirm the lane is open. If the lane is open, enter the highway — but only the first lane. Resist the temptation to whip out across several lanes of traffic to get to the fast lane. A lot of weird shit can happen during a merge. Cars can change positions, traffic behind you might be moving a lot faster than you think, etc.
  9. Haul ass. Get up to speed with the rest of traffic, if you aren’t already.
  10. Turn your signal off. If you want to change lanes again (and I recommend this, as it gets you clear of the on-ramp / off-ramp zones), make another mirror check, turn your signal on, make a head check, and then change one more lane only. Repeat if necessary.

Getting off of the highway is tricky sometimes, too — but that’s a topic for another article. I find entering the highway a lot more nerve racking than exiting, mostly because of traffic coming up behind you. By breaking up your on-ramp sequence into smaller pieces you may be able to react better to the unexpected. And reacting to the unexpected is pretty much the number one survival strategy for commuting on a motorcycle.

Posted in: motorcycling

5 Comments on "Random Motorcycling Tip #06: Surviving a highway merge"

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  1. Andrew says:

    “You are now qualified to ride slowly around a parking lot.”

    Ha! My instructor told us something like “You now meet the absolute bare minimum skills requirement to operate a motorcycle in the state of Illinois. Be careful out there.”

  2. Gremlin says:

    Huh, more than two lanes on a highway. Really? I knew there was a reason I lived in Montana.

  3. stev3 says:

    Hey DrFaulken,

    Off-topic… but I’ve been following your site for months and haven’t been able to figure out how to subscribe to your posts via RSS. The only links I’ve been able to find are for the comments. Any suggestion?


  4. drfaulken says:

    Hey Stev3!

    Nice to see that you are still visiting 🙂 I added a button on every page in the “Meta” section for the RSS 2.0 feed based on your request.

    You can also get the feed directly from this URL:

    and depending on your reader, may be able to just enter

    directly (that’s what I do in Google Reader for other WordPress-based blogs).

    Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you on Ars 🙂

  5. stev3 says:

    Most excellent. Thanks for the update!