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Who has the right of way on a freeway merge?

Driver's ed is teaching my teenage niece that she does not have the right of way when driving down Highway 401 while another vehicle is trying to merge on to the freeway. I have been driving for 30 years and it's the first I've heard that the driver already on the highway doesn't have the right of way in that lane. Is this correct? – Sheila in Hamilton, Ont.

Most of us understand that it's common courtesy to accommodate merging traffic, but are we legally obligated to do so?

"It's an interesting question, because the way the law is written, the driver already on the freeway does have right-of-way. However, because the driver in the merge lane has to merge and eventually will run out of road, from a co-operative and courteous driving perspective, we do teach to change lanes and create space for that person to merge by all means," says Rachel Hesson-Bolton, manager of education development for Young Drivers of Canada.

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"When it comes to right-of-way, nobody has the right of way if it interferes with another driver. You can't smash into somebody trying to get on from the ramp and then call that right-of-way," says Hesson-Bolton.

What happens on the highways and byways of our nation is regulated provincially. When it comes to entering a freeway, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation Driver's Handbook instructs: "As you leave the ramp, you enter the acceleration lane. In the acceleration lane, drivers increase their speed to the speed of traffic on the freeway before they merge with it. Signal and increase your speed to merge smoothly with traffic. Freeway drivers should move over, if it is safe to do so, leaving room for merging vehicles."

Your provincial Driver's Handbook also advises: "Be careful not to cut off any vehicle, large or small, when making a lane change or joining the flow of traffic. It is dangerous and illegal for a slower-moving vehicle to cut in front of a faster-moving vehicle."

Some driving instructors I contacted insist that the thicker lines to enter freeways, such as Ontario's 400-series highways, represent not only the lane ending but an intersection where the vehicle to the right has the right-of-way.

"It gets a bit fuzzy, because a merge ramp and a freeway are two intersecting roads. I have heard both theories about who has rights, but at the end of the day to be honest it really doesn't matter because if the objective is to drive safely, if you're looking ahead you can very clearly see drivers on a ramp long before you arrive and you should be able to either speed up, slow down or change lanes to accommodate their entry. If you're not able to do any of those things safely, then you have to make a decision and protect yourself on the road," says Hesson-Bolton.

The important thing for your niece and all motorists to remember is that based on the existing rules of the road, there are responsibilities placed both on drivers entering a freeway, and those already on the freeway. Those entering should merge with caution and match the speed of freeway traffic and, when possible, motorists on the freeway should create space for merging vehicles to merge safely.

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