Merging on the highway is a tricky beast. You have to make a series of lightning-fast decisions on the fly, and they all have to be correct. It makes sense that fear of merging on the highway is probably the scariest part of highway driving.
It’s basically every phobic driver’s least favorite aspects of driving rolled into one giant stress ball. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
I grew up in a small town in Colorado. Anxiety driving on highways wasn’t a big thing for me, or at least not until I got married and moved to San Francisco.
The traffic in major California cities is nothing short of terrifying. I’d never seen anything like it before. Looking back now, I think coming face to face with Bay Area freeways actually caused me to develop driving anxiety.
I hated California. Hated. It. We moved back to Colorado after two years; neither of us could take it anymore.
And I had a full-blown case of driving phobia, even on my hometown’s gentle roads. Plus, I had a massive fear of merging on a highway, even though my small town’s highways were mostly empty.
These days, I merge on highways with barely a second thought, because it’s second nature now. I rarely remember ever being scared of it.
Here’s how I did it.
Why Anxious Drivers Have Fear of Merging on Highways
But before I tell you how I conquered my fear of merging on highways, let’s look at why it causes people such extreme anxiety. I mentioned above that merging is like a giant ball of stress. Far from being a carefree trip speeding down an open, sun-kissed road, merging features all the “non-fun” mechanics of driving, including:
- Driving at highway speed – I recently got an email from a man who said he has a mental block about going faster than 40 mph. “I just can’t do it,” he said, “and I don’t know why.” A top complaint of phobic drivers is the feeling of going too fast. Unfortunately, highways require you to drive fast.
- Driving near large vehicles – Driving next to trucks or other big vehicles really freaks some people out. And there’s no escape if you happen to be merging next to one. You just kinda have to deal with it.
- Accelerating into traffic – Merging involves accelerating into a pack of moving cars — on purpose! Who would do such a thing?! It’s an unnatural act when you really think about it.
- Hand/eye coordination – Merging requires visual acuity and a strong connection between your eyes and your hands and feet. Not everyone is automatically good at this sort of thing.
- Figuring distances – You have to be pretty good at judging distance to fit your car into an open slot near the on-ramp. And you have to measure distance in your mirrors sometimes. That’s probably why they say “Objects may be closer than they appear.” Thanks, mirror.
- Driving aggressively – Merging requires a certain amount of aggression at times. Hesitating too much can be disastrous. You have to be able to think and act quickly. Hesitation while merging causes accidents. In fact, roughly four percent of all traffic accidents are due to improper merging.
Effective Merging Techniques
Yup, merging is kind of a drag. But there’s hope, even for the most phobic of drivers. Because highway merging is a learned skill that anyone can become competent at.
Even if driving isn’t your thing, you can master the basic steps of merging well enough to do it safely. It’s a combination of technique plus the willingness to push through your fear.
Here’s the techniques you’ll need:
- Use the on-ramp to match speed – The on-ramp is there so you can accelerate to highway speed. Some people slow down driving up the ramp; this is a BIG mistake. You need to be moving at or near the speed of traffic when you enter the highway.
- Pick your slot – Pick a slot in traffic to merge into that’s roughly the length of your vehicle. Speed up or slow down until you’re parallel to the open space, then quickly merge into it.
- Use your mirror – With a little practice, you actually can gauge distance pretty well in your side mirror. This helps keep your eyes on the road in front of you too. Tip: Keep mirrors clean so you can see better. This also helps you driving at night.
The good news is, merging is a muscle memory event, kind of like riding a bicycle. Once your body, eyes, and brain sync up correctly, it becomes automatic. Then you can do it without thinking.
Here’s How I Conquered My Merging Fear
I used to be so terrified of merging, I would have a panic attack afterwards. But now? It can still be stressful sometimes, especially if traffic is extra heavy. Honestly though, I barely notice it most of the time now.
I didn’t go from terrified to calm overnight though. It took work. Here’s what I did to master highway merging:
- I practiced – Being a good driver is a skill. And like any skill, you get better the more you do it. So I practiced. I mostly did it at night and on weekend mornings when traffic was light.
- I got a friend to help me – One of the hardest things about merging is having to look around so much. So occasionally, a friend would come along to be an extra set of eyes for me. I felt safer knowing I wasn’t alone. My kids helped me sometimes as well.
- I took driving lessons for a while – Having a good driving instructor is like having a good therapist. It’s incredibly comforting to have a trained professional actually there with you. Check out this story about a woman overcoming her terror of merging with an understanding driving instructor.
- I kept trying when I wanted to quit – I kept doing it, even when I felt like giving up. This is the most important skill in overcoming driving anxiety. Most people fail simply because they give up way too soon.
Fear of merging on the highway is definitely one of the trickiest aspects of driving anxiety. And with good reason! Merging is a legitimately difficult driving maneuver that, unfortunately, we all have to learn if we want to drive. But it is possible to master it. I did it, and you can too.