Tips for Driving in Traffic as a New Driver

Nobody likes to be stuck in traffic. But the reality is that traffic happens. During rush hour, around accidents and road work, and sometimes just because, roadways get congested.

When you’re a new driver, traffic can feel scary. There are cars all around you starting and stopping unpredictably. If you did most of your driving practice on empty roads, congested conditions can be overwhelming. It’s normal to feel that way! Even experienced drivers find heavy traffic taxing. But there are some ways you can learn to be a good driver even in the worst traffic conditions (and depending on the traffic where you live, you might unfortunately gain that knowledge faster than you’d like). Here are some tips for new drivers for driving in traffic.

Avoid When Possible

This may seem obvious, but if you can avoid traffic, do that! If you use any kind of map app to get around (like google maps or waze), your app will often flag when you’re heading into a traffic jam and offer an alternative route. While of course you should never look at your phone while driving, you could pull over or ask a passenger to select the less-trafficy option. It may take you a little out of your way, but often driving a little further through clear conditions is more pleasant than a shorter route that leaves you idling in traffic.

Don’t Panic

If you do find yourself in traffic — and eventually, you will — the first thing to do is to keep calm. Traffic is stressful, for sure. You’re surrounded by other vehicles, everyone is moving unpredictably, and, if you’re trying to get somewhere by a certain time, you’re realizing you’re probably going to be late. Those are all stress-inducers, but getting anxious will only make things worse. Find some inner zen and accept the traffic for what it is. After all, getting angry or anxious won’t get you where you’re going any faster. 

Sadly, many of the drivers around you will not be as calm as you are. According to the American Psychological Association, traffic is one of the most common causes of road rage. If someone honks, yells, cuts you off, or makes a rude gesture at you, try not to take it personally. They’re mad at the traffic, not at you (and need to work on their anger management skills).

Go With the Flow

Typically when people talk about “traffic,” they’re referring to stop and go traffic, like a traffic jam. But sometimes, you’ll find yourself on a congested roadway where people are traveling at speed, but are densely packed together. This can be almost more scary than stopped traffic, because you’re boxed in but traveling fast. 

Whatever kind of traffic you find yourself in, try to match the speed of the vehicles around you. If the traffic is traveling over the speed limit and you don’t want to speed, make sure you’re in the furthest right lane and keep at the speed limit. You may find cars whipping around you to pass, which feels unsettling, but remember: you’re the one obeying the law, and they’re the ones driving dangerously.

Maintain Your Bubble

Sometimes when drivers are feeling frustrated with stopped traffic, they’ll get riiiiiight up on the bumper of the car ahead of them. Scootching up, even just a little, maybe gives them the sensation that they’re getting somewhere. This is not a good idea. In fact, it leads to the kind of fender benders that create traffic situations in the first place.

When you’re in heavy traffic, whether it’s fast, stop and go, or stopped completely, maintain following distance. Will cars use your following distance to cut in front of you? Probably. Just let them do their impatient thing. 

Keeping your following distance in traffic will give you a safety buffer that will prevent you from rear-ending someone. Often in those situations, traffic will seem to let up and then stop again suddenly. If you’re an inexperienced driver and you haven’t left enough following distance, you might find yourself bumping the car in front of you. That will definitely add time to your commute!

So even if the other cars around you are all mashed up, keep your space bubble as much as you can. Try not to change lanes if you can help it, but if you must change lanes, be extra careful about checking your blind spot before moving over. Being stuck in traffic can make people ungenerous to the point of being dangerous, and the car beside you might not let you over. Just keep your inner calm and get over when you can.

Stay Alert

It’s easy to start to space out when you’re stuck on the roadway, but it’s important to stay alert. Traffic conditions can change quickly and you need to be moving with them. If the congestion is caused by a collision or construction, there may be flaggers trying to move you around a closed lane, debris in the road, or emergency workers directing traffic.

Though it can feel sometimes like you’ll never move again, you eventually will, and you need to be paying attention so you can flow with the other vehicles. Avoid the temptation to check your phone when stopped. It’s not safe and distractions like that can make you miss important cues about what the cars around you are doing. 

To help yourself stay focused, you might consider asking a passenger to put on some non-distracting music. Zoning out in bad traffic conditions can cause collisions, and they can happen very quickly if you’re not paying attention to what’s going on around you.

Traffic is no fun, but it’s part of driving. Learning how to be a safe driver in all kinds of traffic conditions is critical to your driving skillset. Next time you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, just look at it as a learning opportunity. It might not make it fun, but at least you’re learning something!

Want to sharpen your driving skills even more? Check out our defensive driving courses. 

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Audrey Ference