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For some, driving on the highway may be new or unfamiliar. Perhaps you’ve only just earned your licence, and are only comfortable with city streets. Or maybe you’ve been driving forever, but only on the roads around your neighbourhood. It’s essential to be comfortable when driving on the highway, because things move quickly — you need to be confident, focused, and aware.

If you’re getting ready for your first voyage onto the highway, take a look at our useful driving tips for new drivers to keep yourself — and others — safe. 

Highway 101

In Ontario, highways are defined by higher travel speeds and multiple lanes for travel. Also called freeways or expressways, drivers enter and exit via ramps, and traffic travelling in either direction is separated by a barrier. Highways are designed for higher speeds of vehicle traffic, omitting intersections and other road users, like cyclists and pedestrians. When used properly, highways can be a safe way for experienced motorists to travel.

The lanes on a highway may seem the same, but each has its own purpose. In a three-lane configuration, the left lane is designed for passing, the middle for travel at normal speeds, and the right for acceleration lane when passing, entering, or exiting. On highways with additional lanes, a similar format follows: pass in the left, drive in the middle, enter/exit on the right. 

Some highways will also feature a High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane. Designed to promote carpooling and provide a more efficient ride home, these lanes are reserved for vehicles with a specified number of passengers. In Ontario, you must have more than two people in the vehicle to use HOV lanes.

Speeds on highways vary depending on the province and jurisdiction. In Ontario, most 400-series highways are 100 km/hour. However, the province is piloting increased speeds on some roads, with posted speeds of up to 110 km/hour. The important thing here is to be aware of the speed limit on the highway you are driving, as speeds may change depending on posted limits or road conditions. Monitor your own speed accordingly, and be ready to react to changes as they occur.

Best tips for new drivers

Practice makes perfect 

One of the keys to confidently driving on the highway is experience. If you’re new to highway driving, consider working with a driving instructor to test out your new skills safely. The high pace of traffic can be stressful and confusing — it is best to have an expert supporting you on your first few trips to help you foster safe driving habits.

When you head out on your own, stay aware of the roadway scanning all lanes, and looking ahead to see what’s happening. Ontario's Ministry of Transportation recommends looking ahead to where you will be in the next 15-20 seconds, anticipating any changes that you may have to react quickly to. Checking your blind spots and mirrors frequently will keep you well-informed of what’s happening around you, and help you steer clear of potential issues and other drivers. Approaching a commercial truck? Pass them safely, leaving ample amounts of room.

Expect the unexpected

Circumstances on highways can change rapidly — you may come up to a construction zone or hit inclement weather unexpectedly. Focus on decelerating smoothly, as slamming on the brakes may leave drivers behind you with little time to react. Construction zones should be approached cautiously, following all detour and speed signs, as road workers are especially vulnerable on highways. For inclement weather such as snow, sleet, or rain, increase your distance between vehicles and drive for the conditions — which could mean going slower than the posted speed. If the roads are messy, consider getting off the highway and picking a slower, safer route. 

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While you can't plan for it, unexpected things will crop up during your drive. Learning how to manage them is one of the best driving techniques for new drivers to have. If you drive up to an emergency vehicle or tow truck stopped on the highway's shoulder, Ontario law dictates that you must slow down and move over, passing the stopped vehicle with caution. If an emergency vehicle is approaching from behind, slow down and move to the right, leaving the left lanes for the emergency vehicle to pass.

If your vehicle malfunctions or you’re involved in a collision, the safest thing to do is move out of active traffic with your vehicle, as long as it is safe. This can be to the road's shoulder, or even taking the closest exit ramp off the roadway. If you are stuck on the road's side but must exit the vehicle, exit through the door on the side away from traffic. Never stand in front or behind your car either, as other drivers may not see you.

Navigating traffic

Traffic is a normal part of driving, and planning for it can make for a significantly less stressful commute. Using an app to map your route before you hit the road may help you proactively identify potential snags. If you do get stuck in gridlock, pay attention, and maintain traffic flow by driving a similar speed as other drivers. Impatience and road rage may make the situation worse (and hinder your ability to drive safely), so keep cool and trust that you’ll reach your destination in due time. 

Enjoy the ride

Highway driving can be exhilarating, as well as extremely efficient – the higher speeds and clear roadways allow you to get to your destination faster than local roads. Learning to drive on these bustling roadways may seem intimidating, but it is really a matter of proactive preparation, staying alert, and reacting to changes as they happen. As a new driver, keep on practising your skills so you can handle the highways with ease.

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