How to Change Lanes

Here is the procedure for changing lanes. If you are a beginner, more detailed instructions are below this little section.

OK, lane changes can be done safely and correctly by following this rule: SMOG



Over the Shoulder


You must signal for 100 feet before you go. It's OK to keep the signal on for longer.

Check the mirrors. First the rear-view mirror in the center of the windshield, then the side mirror. Check the side you are going to, not the other side.

Does it look clear? If cars are coming up very fast, or if they are close, then wait. Keep moving and keep your signal on. Re-check mirrors every few seconds

If it is clear, then turn your head quickly (about 1/2 second) to check the blind spot. It's just over your shoulder.

Then, if it's good, you can go. Keep your speed up and maybe even accelerate into the lane. Remember you are not going over, you are going forward into the other lane. Don't wait five seconds and then go. Things change too fast.

If you need help with finding the blind spot or steering straight while looking, read on. A much more thorough lesson is next.


Changing lanes is usually done at full speed. If you slow down to change lanes, other drivers will get mad and pass you. That does not help you change lanes. And you are moving across the road into the flow of traffic. Lane changes are something you better learn to do correctly, not just for the road test, but so you can drive safely for the rest of your life.

Here are a couple of skills you need to develop if you are a new driver and you are about to go on the highway for the first time:

Use your mirrors.

Practice looking in the rear-view mirror. Just look for less than a second. Remember you have to steer straight on the road and don’t get close to the car in front. What are you looking for?

1. Who is there behind you and
2. How far away are they and
3. How fast are they going

It takes practice to learn this much information with quick glances in your mirror. You don't want to fixate on the mirror. So the first thing you need to learn is how to look in the mirror for a quick second and see who is there, how far they are from you and how fast they are going. This may take two or three quick glances, so you can estimate the speed of the car behind.

If they are a ways back and are going about the same speed as you, you don’t have to worry about them. You can move over. Keep your speed up as you do so. Try not to slow down too much. That just creates problems.

If they are close or are going very fast, you should wait. Keep driving at about the same speed. You can adjust your speed a bit, but not drastically unless there is a good reason to slow down.
Keep moving and keep your signal on. Glance in the mirrors every couple of seconds until it looks like it's clear. Then double-check over your shoulder and make the move.
To be good at this, you have to practice looking in the mirrors while steering straight.

Check your blind spot.

Some drivers tell me their parents have instructed them to use the mirrors only, because they don’t think it’s safe to look behind. I agree. Don’t look behind. That’s why you have learned to look in the mirrors to see who is there, how far they are and how fast they are going.

You still have to check the blind spot. It is not behind you, it is to your side. Here’s how you find your blind spot—hold up your hand to the side of your head a little in front, then move it back while you look straight ahead. As you move your hand back, it disappears from your frontal vision, then from your peripheral vision. There’s your blind spot.

Would your mirror show you that hand? Not likely. Big trucks and buses have special wide-view mirrors because the drivers cannot turn their head to check the blind spot. You have to turn your head even if you have a special mirror. It is a good habit you will never regret. And you have to do it to get you license. It’s part of the road test.

Practice looking quickly to your left and to your right as you steer straight. Remember you do not have to look behind; your mirror shows you what is behind. Just look to the side and a tiny bit behind. What are you looking for? A bike or a car or a truck. You do not have to look for even a full second. Make it real quick.

Don’t be so nervous that you don’t even register what you are seeing. The purpose of looking in the mirrors and checking the blind spot is to be sure there are no cars for you to hit when you move over. So practice looking and seeing.

Drive on a straight stretch of road. Practice looking in the mirrors and quickly turning your head without wandering. If you cannot look without going into the next lane, you are not ready to change lanes! Practice and perfect this first. Then you will have confidence to move on to the next part. You do not want to accidentally move into the next lane while you are attempting to see if it’s safe. You will crash. So be sure you can look in the mirrors and then turn your head without wandering.

OK, so now you have the basic observation skills down. Here is the procedure for safe lane changes:

CODE Communicate, Observe, Decide, Execute

Communicate. Use your turn signal 100 feet before moving over. If it’s not clear, keep the signal on. Your signal means you intend to change lanes. It does not necessarily mean it’s clear and you are now going to make your move. It is a communication. You are asking other drivers to cooperate with you. You must let them know what you are trying to do if you want them to work with you. So use your signal.

Observe. Use your mirrors. Remember to look in the rear view mirror for the big picture of what is going on behind you. Then the side mirror for more information. Assess the speed and the distance of other drivers.

Check your blind spot by looking over your shoulder. The mirrors show you 99.9% of what you need to see, but you need to be 100% sure, so check the blind spot before you go.

Decide. This is the key. Based on what you see, you decide whether you can go or not. Do not go if it’s not safe. As a beginner, it’s best to not go if you are not sure it’s safe. However, if you are too wimpy, then other drivers will get disgusted and pass you. Then they will never let you go. So learn to be assertive.

Here is one way to practice and improve: When you decide not to go because the cars are too close together, ask yourself if you made the right decision. After the other cars pass, ask yourself if you could have/should have gone between them. If there is three hundred feet between them, you could have gone. Next time, get better. Remember it is always better to be safe then sorry, but you do have to learn to get into the traffic. All the other drivers are doing it; you can, too.

Execute. This is the easy part. Turn the steering wheel a bit. Go forward into the lane; do not try to go "over". Look ahead on the road and see where you would be if you just kept going straight. Then, aim for the same place. Usually, nobody else is slowing down because you are changing lanes, so keep moving.

When you execute the lane change, sometimes you have to speed up a bit and sometimes you have to slow down a bit. Don’t automatically slow down. Practice keeping your speed up while you look in the mirrors and execute the lane change. If you slow down a bit while moving over, speed up after you are finished your lane change.

If you are a beginner, here is an excellent way to learn how to change lanes without scaring anyone.

How to Learn


Practice everything except the actual lane change.

You can practice lane changes without actually changing lanes. After all, the decision is the most important part. If you can get good at deciding “yes” or “no”, can I change lanes or not, then it is easy to move the car to the next lane. Be sure you are very good at knowing if it’s clear before you try to make your move. This will save you a lot of stress and nervousness. This is my secret as a driving instructor. Practice the COD without the E. The E is the scary part because it really is dangerous to execute the lane change without the absolute knowledge that it’s safe. So practice the first three first. It’s way safer. I know.

Your decision to go (or not to go) is the most crucial part of the CODE process. And the decision is based on what you see with your eyes.

So the most important skills you need to learn are the observe and the decide. Here is what you do:

Observe- Look in the mirrors, gather the visual information you need (remember, who, how close and how fast).

Decide- Could you go over? Don’t do it, just ask yourself if you could have. Get another person to help you verify the correctness of your decision. You can actually practice this drill from the passenger seat.

Once you know how to look and decide, you can easily graduate to actually executing the lane change.

Remember to try to keep your speed up. The best way to interact with other traffic is to go the speed of the flow of traffic. Nobody wants to let a super-slow car in front of them, so keep moving.


Practice steering straight while looking in the mirrors and checking blind spots. Don’t try to change lanes until you can do this without wandering.

Practice looking in the mirror and deciding whether you could change lanes. When you can make the right decision every time, you are ready to start actual lane changes.

As a beginner, you should plan your trip and try to move into the lane you need early. Do it when it is safe and easy. Don’t wait until you are desperate and the traffic won’t let you in. Think about where you need to be and get into that lane as early as you can. Plan your trip.

Practice the drills even if you don’t need to. Decision-making is the most important part of driving, so keep your eyes moving and always know whether you can move over at any given time. This will really help you if lanes are closed or if something unexpected happens. You will never regret good observation and decision-making habits.

A Little Extra:

When you are looking for an opening in the traffic, look for a car in front going faster and a car behind going slower. This gap will open up.

If the car in front is going slower and the car behind is faster, that gap will close. Don't try to get in there.

When you see the car in front going faster, and the car behind him is slower, you know that gap will open up for you. Make your move right behind the front car. Don't wait until he is way up there, because by then the next car is on your tail. So get in right behind the front car. Then re-establish your safe following distance (2 seconds).

Sometimes you have to adjust your speed to get over. Don't be afraid to speed up a bit, but use common sense; don't speed up to change lanes if the cars in front are slowing down to stop at a red light. Many students have scared me by doing this. That's why you practice the looking and deciding before you actually change lanes. You gotta know what's going on around you, behind you and in front before you attempt to move around into different lanes on the highway.

Practice observation and decision before you try to actually change lanes.

DISCOVER MAGAZINE article: The Math of Changing Lanes.

1 comment:

Kim Casey said...

Keep up the good work. This blog is very informative, for a beginner like me. I love it. Thank you for your blog! Good job, you're the bomb guys!