How Much of the Road Do You Own?

How often do we hear the comment “He drives as if he owns the road”? The answer to that question gets us into a very subjective realm, leading to a lot of unpleasant thoughts and road rage, and ultimately to accidents. However, there are areas of the road that you do own, and some that you partially own, depending on a lot of external conditions. Being aware of these areas will perhaps help you to stay out of dangerous situations, and to understand what happens if you stray into one of them.


There are three areas to consider

  1. The Owned Area. There is a distance in front of our car that, if we are driving at an appropriate speed and paying attention (don’t get me going on distracted drivers; there isn’t enough storage space on this server) we really cannot stop. This area we own in a legal sense, because if another driver drives into that area we have no way of avoiding him, so an accident is not considered our fault.
  2. The Conditional Area. The Owned Area considers optimum lighting, road surface and car maintenance conditions. So there is an area at the far end of our stopping distance that we don’t own if the conditions are not ideal. If we are driving too fast for the conditions, our stopping distance is longer, and it’s a grey area. Difficult to prove and subjective to observe. This is one area where defensive drivers excel, because they are aware of it, and drive accordingly.
  3. The Ego Area. There is an area beyond this that we don’t own but we might think we do. Because

A. either we’re so young and stupid that accidents only happen to other people, or

B. we’re so old and rich – and driving in our Audi is so comfortable and removed from reality and just feels so…right – that the world simply must conform to our wishes, just as it does in the rest of our lives, or

C. we have an exaggerated sense of our own ability to drive safely, no matter how stupid other people are.

In any case, because of our excessive speed, poor self-evaluation, and inattention, we really can’t stop until the far end of this area, and if we cause an accident there we are legally at fault.


But that straight-line area in front of us is just the beginning. I mention it only to set the terms for the rest of the essay.

Lane Changes.

Faulty lane changes cause a lot of accidents and a huge number of near misses, mostly because of automobile blind spots, magnifying mirrors, and lack of awareness on the part of the driver behind.

Yes, the driver behind, I’m talking to you. If you are tooling down your lane depending on everyone to obey the “Road I Own” rules, you may not be aware of several points:

Blind Spot.

Of course, everyone knows that every car has a blind spot on either side, just behind and to the side. For simplicity we will discuss the left-hand blind spot, but remember that the right one is similar, usually larger, and requires a longer shoulder check. The position of that blind spot depends on the design of the car and the position of the rear-view mirrors.

Fortunately, in most cars the blind spot is clear behind the back bumper. So if that car changes lanes and there is a vehicle in the blind spot, it will not actually hit that vehicle, although it will give the following driver a real shock, and perhaps even activate the safety braking mechanism on newer model cars. Where the accidents occur is when a driver cutting in front of a blind spot vehicle is then required by traffic ahead to jam on his brakes while he is within the stopping distance the following car “owns.” Bam!

The solution for the lead car is simple; have good rear vision and use it: both mirrors and shoulder-checks. But no amount of vigilance can protect us if driver behind us acts up.

The solution for the follower is twofold. First, as every defensive driver knows, you have to adjust your forward Owned Area by your assessment of stupid moves possible by other drivers. For example, in rush hour when everyone is in a hurry and grouchy, people are much more likely to do stupid things, and you should be driving accordingly. In spite of the fact that you are suffering from the same handicaps. The second defense, of course, is not to cruise in the other guy’s blind spot. Most people are aware of cars coming up behind them, but in crowded traffic, things behind change regularly, and we can’t observe them constantly. If a car behind us in another lane disappears, he also disappears from our memory. So if a car is cruising in our blind spot for a minute or so, and a sudden need for a lane change occurs, we might cut in front of him. And of course, it’s all our fault, isn’t it? Well, sort of.

How it Works

I had a close call on the I-5 south of Seattle last fall. There was a lot of traffic, but spaced out well, and there was a late-model medium-brown Toyota sedan in my left-hand mirror for long enough that I had him placed. A car cut in on me from the right, and with no time to shoulder check, I glanced in my rear-view mirror to check that the Toyota was clear, and ducked left.

…only to receive an angry horn blast from the late-model medium-brown Nissan sedan that had been ahead of the Toyota, and in my blind spot, for several kilometers. The car I had shoulder-checked earlier and the car in my left-hand mirror were two different cars that looked similar, travelling in tandem.

And if there had been an accident, I would have had to accept full responsibility. The car that had cut in on me was not an immediate threat, and I had made the judgement call that making a lane change was safer than piling on the binders and perhaps being rear-ended by the car behind me. I would have been wrong.

The Clear Intention Area.

The safe way to make a lane change is first to shoulder- and mirror-check to see that the lane is clear. Then turn on your turn signal for at least three flashes. Then shoulder-check again. Finally, make your move slowly into the new lane (always checking the cars in front of you between each look back). This takes some time. Note that once you have checked that the lane is clear and your turn signal has flashed three times, your Owned Area has changed. You have clearly stated your intention of moving into that space in the other lane, and therefore you have a certain amount of ownership of that lane. You don’t fully own it, but every driver behind you knows darned well that you are going there. More than that, every driver behind you should know, for his own safety, that you think it is safe to go there. So they all know you are going to change lanes, and only an idiot would drive into that area. Especially when that idiot is probably coming out of your blind spot.


So it stands to reason that, if you are travelling behind someone and you change lanes, you have passed through that person’s blind spot, and you may be still in it. If you change lanes and accelerate at the same time, you have not legally established full ownership of the new lane. And, as mentioned above, the act of changing lanes and moving ahead passes you directly through the other driver’s blind spot.

It isn’t hard to picture a scenario where a driver looks in his mirror and sees you behind him, shoulder-checks the next lane and sees it clear, and while he is looking forward you cut left into his blind spot. As his head turns, you surge ahead, staying where he can’t see you. Now, if he cuts left he’s going to hit you, because you are doing something he doesn’t expect.


What makes this occurrence especially galling is when cars roar up behind us, we signal our intention to move into another lane, and in spite of our clearly stated intention of changing lanes, they blast their horns, essentially saying, “I own the road,” cut out and roar past.

Overtaking by Swinging Wide.

There is a really cute trick for getting past other cars. You’re several cars back in line, stopped at an intersection Let’s say you’re in the right-hand lane, making a right turn. When the light goes green and the cars in front of you turn into the right-hand lane on the new street, you floor it and sweep immediately into the left-hand lane, passing them all. Cool.

Except for all the points mentioned above. The proper way to get into the left-hand lane after an intersection is to establish yourself in the right-hand lane, check as mentioned above, three blinks with the turn signal, and then move over. If a safe driver is following this method and some turkey happens to sweep through his blind spot at the wrong time and ignore his turn signal, then a close encounter is bound to follow.


This scenario works the same on left turns, but with the added danger of approaching traffic, especially those turning right into “your” new lane to complicate matters.

The Point of This Essay

There is an area of the road that the driver of the car in front, having stated the clear intention of moving into in a legal manner, can legitimately consider he temporarily owns and those behind him can expect him to move into it. Anyone who usurps that area, whether in a legal or an illegal manner, is likely to cause an accident.

This is a grey area. Sometimes the front car is deemed at fault, sometimes the rear car. But from a safe driving point of view, the car behind has a much better view of what is going on than the car ahead, so there is a stronger onus on the driver behind to avoid an accident. If he can predict what part of the road the driver in front thinks he owns, then he has a better chance of avoiding an accident.

PS: A Word to Motorcyclists about Blind Spots:

You are small and vulnerable, and half the length of the average blind spot. If you cruise in someone’s blind spot, being legally in the right will bring you little consolation in the hospital bed. Or the coffin.



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