Lane Changing Tips

(Last Updated On: December 7, 2015)

Recommended procedure for lane changing is usually:


1) Mirror(s)
2) Signal
3) Shoulder Check
4) Lane Change & Check Mirror Again


Ok this all sounds very nice, but what else should you know? In my day-to-day observations I often see something like this:


1) Mirror
2) Lane Change


What is wrong with this? How can drivers improve their lane changes? Lane changing is one of the most difficult things for new learner drivers to master. It seems even experienced drivers don’t find it easy, either. This is because in lane changing, we often have to multitask. We need space in front. We need space behind. But we also have to notice things like lights going yellow/red, pedestrians in crosswalks, and other drivers trying to lane changing into the same space. We also have to judge speeds. Your own speed, the speed of the vehicle in front and behind you. Those speeds often change due to circumstances.


Lane changing tips




1) Check your mirrors: if there is no space in front of you in which to move into, then there is no point in turning on your signal or doing a shoulder check. Find the space first. How do you know if you have enough space? I see a lot of drivers cutting off others when doing a lane change. This is dangerous because it leaves the vehicles no space (minimum 2 second rule) in case of sudden stops (red light, pedestrians, etc.) It is also seen as being rude and can trigger road rage.


A general guideline I use when teaching new drivers how to tell if they have enough space, is to look in their rear-view mirror. You need to be able to see the entire front of the vehicle behind you, including its tires touching the pavement, before you can even considering moving over in front of that vehicle. If you can see that much space in your mirror, then you have a generous and safe amount of space between the vehicles *as long as you are going the same speeds, that is a good guideline.* If you can NOT see the entire thing in your mirror or the tires – say you can see the windshield, but not the headlights – then don’t do it – You are too close. (I’m taking about driving at normal speeds. If you are stuck in a traffic jam and you are moving 2 km/hr, then you might have to lane change closer than this in the case where someone else is letting you in). This is especially important if the vehicle behind you is a large truck. If you lane change too close, and then suddenly stop, there is a good chance you’ll be rear-ended. Trucks can not – and will not – stop in the same space that you can. Think about motorcycles as well. They can – and will – stop in a much shorter distance than you, so leave extra room in front and behind at all times. It’s motorcycle season.


It should look something like this, you want to see the whole vehicle + his tires touching the pavement. This is about 3-4 car lengths usually. If you don’t believe me, park your car in front of another car and get out and look.


See AT LEAST this much space in the mirror (the entire car & tires touching pavement; more for a truck or larger vehicle) :






2) Signal: Many people seem to think that the only reason they need to signal is to avoid getting a traffic ticket and paying a fine. Think about it though. You may know where you’re going, but others around you probably have no idea. They’re not physic. This is fine as long as the roads aren’t too busy, or don’t have too many lanes. But if you don’t signal, and someone assumes you’re going straight because you don’t have a signal (and that is a logical assumption) then you can easily get into trouble.


You should signal at least a few seconds BEFORE you actually shoulder check and move your vehicle. This leaves some TIME going by that can warn other people that you are seriously thinking about moving your vehicle. If someone else has a problem with your intentions (such as a motorcycle or a car you did not notice riding in your blind spot) then there will be some TIME for him to either honk to alert you of his existence OR to move out of your way. If you simply signal at the exact same time as you move over (which I also see is happening quite a lot) then there will be no time for anyone to alert you of the danger, and essentially your turn signal was 100% useless.


Think about these two examples:


Say this little blue/green car is parked. He wants to enter the traffic. The red car in the left lane also wants to lane change around this time. If neither car has a signal, because he/she thinks there is no potential conflict from anyone else, then they could potentially have a crash. If they both signal their intentions BEFORE they move, even if one of them displays a signal, then the situation will be much safer.







Also, what about this problem? When you’re driving on a road that has multiple lanes (as in, more than 2 in your direction) then you really need to time it so that when you are planning your lane change, there is not a car in the same position on the road 2 lanes over, that may be thinking that it’s also a wonderful time for him to move over into the middle lane. In this case, signals may be useless. To be a defensive driver, you need to slow down or speed up or wait a bit longer until you aren’t in this precarious position. Never assume, “Oh, it’s fine.”




This is the way to go:




Heavy Traffic Situations


In cases when you’re in heavy traffic, you’ll have to signal first. People have no idea that you would like to lane change, unless you tell them. In this case, you can signal first and leave the signal on, drive along for a bit and see if the car next to you will widen the gap for you. This works best if you get your car into a strategic position of making it easy for the car next to you to help you. People are very nice about this, IF you ask nicely, and if you set it up nicely. Maybe a lot of people won’t go out of their way for you (and should they have to?); if you set it up properly, it should be easy for all.  Make sure you’re in a position that he can see your signal. If you are right beside another car, there is no way the driver is going to see your signal:




Strategic Vehicle Positioning


Get your car Just a bit in front of the car so that he can see your signal – you want your turn signal light to be kind of flashing in front of his face. That is the most obvious way to get his attention.




In this case, the red car is saying to the purple car, “Excuse me, I would like to do a lane change sometime relatively soon, but I don’t have enough space. Could you please be so kind as to make the space in front of you a little bit bigger, by slightly easing off your gas pedal for a few moments?”


If you are the person driving the purple car, please ease off your gas and let the guy in! In take 2 seconds. I have taught people how to do lane changes in this manner regularly and with ease. People are usually very happy to help you. You must be going the exact same speeds, otherwise, it’s not going to work. Make sure you wait a few seconds after you put your signal on – until you can see the entire car in the mirror as mentioned – to make sure you aren’t cutting them off. Remember to keep your eyes moving to watch the traffic in front of you in case of red/yellow lights or sudden unexpected stops. If the car lets you in, say thanks with a wave. If he doesn’t, then you can not lane change. Try again with a different car. Legally, you must not lane change until it is safe. If you leave your lane and get into a crash, then it will be your fault. If 2 cars both leave their lane at the same time and have a crash, then the fault will be 50/50. Work together, people!


Shoulder Check


3) Shoulder Check. This should take less than 1 second and you should be moving your head only (not your whole body or shoulders). Most cars have a blind spot out the rear passenger window area on each side of the vehicle. If your car has the fancy new blind spot warning system, well then you may have a good argument against shoulder checking. Taking your eyes off the road for any period of time is considered dangerous. That’s why we must use the mirrors first, and then make the shoulder check very quick. Maybe you’re sure there’s nothing there, in the blind spot. But what if one day you are wrong? If it saves a life, is it worth it? Remember that we can not undo car crashes. If we’re going to stop them, we have to prevent them in the first place.


New driver issues


*New drivers often shoulder check and move into the new lane at the exact same time. Please be aware of this issue when learning and practice doing these steps one after the other, not all at the same time. You should be staying 100% completely in your lane while shoulder checking. Then, look forward again. Then move over while looking where you’re going.


Make your move


4) Move into your new lane! Check your rear-view mirror again to see what’s going on in your new lane. How is the vehicle behind? Is he too close? Should you leave more room in front of you? Is there an emergency vehicle approaching?


Solid White Lines


*Keep in mind it’s illegal to lane change over a solid white line. Avoid lane changing in intersections (not actually illegal, but not a good idea either).



Illegal and unsafe lane changes:



More examples:



New driver practicing lane changing:





DriveSmartBC: Lane Changes

The Safe Driver: it’s time to make a lane change

Many moons ago, Carmen became an ICBC-approved driving instructor at the age of 22 in North Vancouver, and has spent many years working with new and experienced drivers around the lower mainland. She can be found reading the Motor Vehicle Act for fun while receiving strange looks from others. May the quest for great driving continue!

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  • Mike

    So when changing lanes I look at my rearview mirror and if I can see the entire vehicle and its tires in the lane im trying to change into it is generally safe to go in?

    • Yes generally; check the blind spot of course. Also, consider the speed of the vehicles. IF the other vehicle is proceeding faster than you are, then it’s probably not going to work! Otherwise, go for it. If you park your car somewhere so that you can see the entire vehicle of a parked car behind yours and then get out and see how much space is there, you will find that it is much larger than it looks in the mirror.. an acceptable distance so ensure safety so that if you change lanes and then have to stop (for a red light for example) then the car behind has enough room it won’t rear end you, will be able to stop in time and also, it’s not rude (you are not “cutting them off”)
      Hope that helps..

      • Mike

        Also, what is the proper way to adjust the rear view mirror

        • Oh, just adjust it so that you can see what is directly behind you. You can use your side mirrors and shoulder checks to see everything else. Hope that makes sense.

          • Observer

            So then you would actually be looking into your side mirror to see the front of the car and its tires in the lane next to you?? NOT the rear view mirror that allows you to see directly behind you.

            • Hi… well you can see the vehicle in both mirrors, but I would use the rear-view mirror as the guide… so if you can see the entire vehicle in your rear-view mirror then it’s enough space.. the side mirrors are often convex (distorted).

              • Observer

                But we should still be using our side mirrors of course? Because there are cars that go out of frame from the rear view and show up in the side only.

                • yes I would say it is wise to use a combination of the mirrors.

  • M

    Hi. Im a new driver and I have some questions if you could help.

    1. So if you see no car in your passenger side window when checking your blind spot, that means its ok to go?

    2. What if a car isn’t next to you but really close to the back of your bumper and you can’t speed up cause you’re driving the speed limit of 30mph, do you slow down to let them pass you? (I thought its bad to slow down to change lanes) but I don’t see any other way.

    3. So if you check your rear view mirror into the lane you want to go into and you see their headlights + tire, you’re good? I heard some people use their side mirrors for this method too but it’s not a true view so why do we need to check our side mirrors for changing lanes?

    Thank you.

    • Hmm, it is kind of difficult to teach lane changing over the internet, let alone to learn it in real life. It is quite a difficult skill for a lot of new drivers to learn; lessons can help a lot.
      1. Well not necessarily! There could be speeding traffic coming from behind you or in the other lane. You have to be aware of what is going on around your car all the time. Things change very quickly too. One moment there may be no traffic and the next moment there may be a speeding car coming behind you.

      2. In this case I would recommend using your turn signal! Let the car know you want to lane change, otherwise, he doesn’t know. You’re right you won’t want to speed.. Sometimes you might slow down a little bit, preferably you signal and create the space first and then move over going the same speed as traffic.

      3. Not necessarily. This is a general guideline. It all depends on the speed of the cars. If the car behind you is going much faster than you then this isn’t going to work. If you are going the same speed and you also check mirrors and do a shoulder check to make sure there is nothing in the blind spot then this is a good guideline to ensure there’s enough space between the vehicles before you move, just in case you change lanes and need to stop for a yellow light, pedestrian or any other reason, this gives the vehicle behind you his proper 2-3 second of following distance needed for safety. Different mirrors show you different views, so it’s good to check the rear-view and also the side mirror to find adequate space. And of course don’t forget the shoulder check! Remember there are still small vehicles and motorcycles that could hide in your blind spot very easily.

  • Jared

    I always turn my whole body to shoulder check, and I tend to shoulder check and simultaneously move into the next lane. I guess I’m afraid that after doing the shoulder check, a car might suddenly appear.

  • Anonymous

    thank you very much for detail analys of this fundamental driving skill

    • carmenac

      You’re very welcome