Navigating Complicated Highway Interchanges and Ramps
Most of the more complicated exit/entry ramps are on heavily travelled city freeway interchanges in which major highway routes join each other or split off from each other. Among my most memorable are elevated ramps connecting to highways that are also elevated on viaducts leading over and between densely built urban structures. Some ramps are long, flowing and seem to blend with the highways that they finally connect to. Others are abrupt, short and sharply curved. Some ramps exit their originating highways from the left lane(s), and others from the right lane(s). Some terminate on the left lane(s) of their destination highway, while others terminate on the right lane(s). Also, left lane as well as right lane exit ramps terminate onto minor highways and surface streets.
Some ramps are single-lane and others multi-lane. Some split, requiring drivers to choose the ramp leading to their destination highway or surface street, and in the case of multi-lane ramps, to change ramp lanes.
Some ramps join with one or more other ramps, requiring one or more vehicle merges. When two ramp lanes converge so one lane is terminated, vehicles originating from the remaining lane usually have the right of way. The rule to yield to vehicles on drivers’ left may also come into play. If you approach my truck from a terminating ramp on my right (my “blind side”), your safest maneuver is to slow down and get behind me. Depending on our speeds, we may not have room for me to slow down enough to let you in front. If you approach my truck from a terminating ramp on my left, there is a better chance that I can slow down to let you in front of me, depending on our relative positions.
Because of the ramps’ twisting paths and tangled layouts and the congestion on them, speeds are generally slower than highway speeds. Speeds decrease to stop-and-go in rush hours and in construction and accident backups. Drivers typically cooperate in their maneuvers, changing lanes and merging in alternating fashion.
Interchange and ramp signs are critical to staying on route, especially for truck drivers because of the size and maneuverability limitations of their trucks. OTR (over the road) drivers who travel these interchanges and ramps infrequently have the additional challenge of unfamiliarity and are particularly dependent on signs. I am always on high alert to follow signs on these interchanges and ramps, because recovering from a missed entry, exit or turn can be very difficult and time-consuming.
Moreover I favor signs over the GPS systems on my trucks because in my experience, GPS too often gets “confused” and provides tardy, ambiguous, incorrect and/or impractical directions. I am especially wary of relying on GPS in areas containing low bridges and other obstacles, such as New York City and Chicago.
On these interchanges and ramps you may want to be extra cautious around trucks and as I do, treat the directions from your GPS system as subordinate to information provided by the signs.
When I Exit a Controlled Access Multi-Lane Highway From a Left Entry Ramp
If I’m driving in the right lane of a multi-lane highway, vehicles exiting my highway on left exit ramps are not a concern for me. When I move to a left lane to take a left exit, I experience close encounters similar to those when I’m in the right lane. In the “fast” lane (the left lane is generally used for passing slower personal vehicles and trucks), I am at more of a disadvantage than in the right (slower traffic) lane because of my truck’s relatively slow governed speed and acceleration.
To move to a left lane, I have to find a traffic opening large enough for my truck or a driver willing to allow me to move in front of him. Similar to my efforts to move right for an exit from the right lane, some drivers fail to notice and/or respond to my left turn signal quickly. I may have to slow down to let those drivers get past my truck. My truck’s performance limitations usually prevent me from getting ahead of them before I reach my exit.
Once I’m in the left lane, some personal vehicles will rush close in front of my truck from a lane to my right to reach the exit ramp ahead of me. While a few drivers may be surprised by an unanticipated ramp approach, others evidently don’t want to pull over behind my truck and wait for it to clear the ramp entrance (see the Cutting in Front of Me tip in the Passing Me chapter).
A hazardous situation develops when a driver exiting close in front of my truck discovers that the exit ramp is short or curvy or congested and has to brake hard as he enters, forcing me to brake hard as well. To reach a left exit, hopefully you will signal in advance and either change lanes in front of my truck outside your lead threshold or move behind me, allowing a safe following distance (see the Risk Zone: Close and Directly in Front of My Truck and the Risk Zone: Close and Directly Behind My Truck tips).
Truck lane laws permitting (in dense traffic areas trucks are often prohibited from left lanes in the absence of left exits), I sometimes move to a lane to the left of the right lane to pass slower vehicles and avoid the “churn” (vehicle exits and entrances) on the right. A rarer but riskier situation is possible when I’m in a middle lane to the right of the left (exit) lane. A driver rushing to an exit by swerving two or more lanes from my right across my lane to the left lane may suddenly be blocked by a vehicle passing my truck in the left lane. The ensuing maneuver to avoid a collision by that driver with the vehicle in the left lane could result in an accident with my truck. It is important that you allow for my truck hiding vehicles in the left lane from your vision.
Conversely, a few drivers passing me on the left then hurry to move right to my lane or a lane to my right. Since my truck hides vehicles on my right from them, they can also be surprised as they cut right in front of my truck. The worst situation would of course be meeting a vehicle rushing to a left exit ramp from my right.
Other Basic Constraints in All Exits
There are other constraints that I have to deal with in all of my exits. By entering ramps at a careful speed, I won’t have to brake so hard that the freight load in my trailer shifts or topples. Pallet stacks of soda or other liquids are particularly susceptible to collapsing. Curves on ramps are often sharp, so it is possible to roll a truck if its speed is not slow enough. Icy or snow covered ramps can be treacherous, with trucks as well as personal vehicles sliding off the curves.
Next, I have to be able to stop for traffic backups as vehicles ahead of me enter the second highway. If I’m taking an exit to a minor or back highway or surface street, the exit typically ends at a stoplight, stop sign or yield sign. I have to be able to come to a complete stop as necessary for these intersections and for vehicles in front of my truck that are stopped at them.
Finally, slowing down in the left lane before reaching an exit ramp helps avoid rear ending any drivers who cut in front of my truck to take exits ahead of me. You can help keep both of us safe by understanding my truck’s limitations and patiently maintaining a safe distance behind me rather than racing to the exit in front of me.
Engine Brake Use
To slow down for most exits, I will use my truck’s engine brake as well as the service brakes. Cities and towns may prohibit engine brake use on their downhill sections of freeways and other highways and on certain exits. To take noise restricted exits, I may slow my approach even more than usual.
There are also downhill grades on the open road with engine brake noise restrictions requested by residents living along the highway. In such areas, descending truck drivers have to gear down enough to use service brakes alone without overheating them. These constraints can create risky situations for truck drivers who have to control their speeds under heavy loads. Overheating brakes from overuse is dangerous as well as damaging to brake parts and tires. Even when engine brakes are permitted, you can often smell hot brakes at the bottom of grades.
Steep exit ramps off downhill grades compound speed control requirements. Warning signs and posted reduced speed limits prepare drivers for these exits. It becomes doubly important that personal vehicle drivers not cut in front of trucks taking them. For these exits, it would seem that muffled engine brakes, at least, should be permitted.
Stay alert, flexible and cooperative on complicated interchanges and exit/entry ramps.
On complicated exit/entry ramps be extra cautious around trucks, whose drivers may not be familiar with their twisting paths and tangled layouts.
A governed truck preparing for an exit from the left or “fast” lane of a multi-lane freeway or other major highway may be at more of a disadvantage than in the right (slower traffic) lane because of its relatively slow speed and acceleration.
When alongside a truck on a multi-lane city freeway or other major highway, stay alert and prepared to move out of its way if the driver signals to move to your lane.
When approaching your exit behind a truck that is slowing down to take the same exit, maintain a safe distance behind it rather than racing to the exit in front of it.
Increase your lead distance (lead threshold) in front of trucks on downhill grades with engine brake restrictions.
When you rush from a lane on one side of a truck to take an exit close in front of it, you risk a rear end collision if you have to brake for some problem on the ramp.
On multi-lane city freeways and other major highways, when you rush from a lane on one side of a truck close across its front to a lane on its far side, you risk meeting another vehicle on its far side that could result in an accident with that vehicle and/or the truck.