I feel like a jerk every time.

I feel like a jerk every time.

A few years ago, I read Tom Vanderbilt’s fascinating (and maddening) book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).

I picked it up on a whim, and it changed my life. Or at least, my driving life.

In Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt explores the science and psychology of how we drive. It turns out that men honk more quickly than women, people in expensive cars are more likely to honk than those in less costly vehicles, and that drivers carrying passengers behave more altruistically on the roads. Those dreaded traffic circles are actually good for you, and left-hand turns are one of the most dangerous maneuvers most drivers execute daily.

Vanderbilt also investigates why humans, as a group, drive badly, no matter how hard we try or how careful we are. Traffic jams aren’t just problems that affect us; they’re problems we cause with our quirky driving behavior. The chief culprit is our inability to maintain a steady speed and following distance.

We’ve been traveling lately, which unfortunately means we’ve been in a half-dozen traffic snarls caused by highway construction and lane closures.

When most Americans see a sign that says “right lane ends 1 mile, merge right,” they move over immediately, clearing the lane that will soon close. It’s commonly perceived to be good manners, and it’s what I always did. Until I learned better.

Vanderbilt convinced me to convert to the previously unthinkable: I became a “late merger.”

The late merge, or “zipper merge,” calls for drivers to fill all available lanes for as long as possible. At the point where a lane actually ends—and not before—drivers take turns filling the open lane, and them resume speed. The zipper merge maximizes road capacity, increases safety, and gets everyone through the crunch point a whopping 40% faster. 

The zipper merge is common practice in Germany and Belgium, and several states, including Washington and Minnesota, have officially endorsed it, launching public awareness campaigns to teach people how to do it. The campaigns are necessary because most American drivers still think late mergers are jerks, cheaters, and line-jumpers, the objects of killing stares and vigilante truck drivers who block the open lane.

Everyone would be better off if we could all learn to be late mergers, but I still die a thousand deaths when I do it, feeling the glares of drivers in the moved-over lanes.

It may be the right thing to do, but I still feel like a jerk every time.

What thing makes you squeamish when you do it, even though you know it’s for the best? (And I’m curious: do you merge as soon as you see a sign, or are you a fellow zipper merge convert?)

59 comments | Comment

59 comments

  1. Lisa says:

    I try to merge as soon as I see a sign, and I usually give the evil side-eye to those “late mergers”. After reading this, however, I’ll try to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re practicing the zipper merge!

  2. Kristal says:

    Oh my gosh! As a born and bred Minnesotan, (transplanted to the ‘Ville) let me say that the zipper merge push was necessary in Minn. People get so obnoxious about letting late mergers in and will actually block the lane to prevent it! We’re big proponents of the zipper merge, but it definitely will get you the single finger salute in some places.

  3. Anjanette says:

    How interesting! My husband has told me this for years, citing queuing research as evidence, but I’ve always felt too rude to change my early-merging habits. I guess I will try!

    Unrelated to driving, one thing that always makes me squeamish is deciding when to offer assistance to someone (my seat on public transport, door-opening, etc.) who is elderly or disabled. My default is to offer, but sometimes, particularly with men of a certain age, I fear I may offend. I once had an eighty-something man with a cane insist on giving me his seat on the subway when I was eight months pregnant. It was an uncomfortable ride for both of us! The unfortunate thing was that the train was full of able-bodied college students, and none of them noticed either of us to offer a seat.

  4. Catie says:

    This is SO interesting! I’ve put that book on hold. 🙂 I, too, am an early merger and get annoyed when people merge at the last minute. Time to change my habits, I guess!

  5. Kristy B says:

    That must have been you this morning. LOL. I have always thought of late mergers as either jerks or they aren’t familiar with that particular road. I’ll try to look at them differently now. 😉

  6. Erica M. says:

    I think zipper mergers would work better if people actually did let others over. Last time I waited, cars kept zooming up to keep me from getting over.

    I think we just get way too personal with our cars. I’m guilty of it. We feel like when someone gets over in front of us, they’re deliberately trying to cut us off. Most likely, they’re more like me, and thinking more about getting home. (That said, the big truck that tailgates everyone and even gestured at me to whip over in front of a huge semi just because ten miles over isn’t fast enough for them doesn’t get a pass here. Two more seconds, and it was safe for me to get over! But that two seconds was too much for them, I suppose.)

  7. Nolo says:

    My experience tells me this is a regional thing. I grew up in MA where you were looked at funny if you didn’t merge at the last possible moment. In the midwest, the first time I saw the early merge, my immediate reaction was, “What are these people doing?!? There is a mile of open road before they need to merge!” It’s awesome to read that my MA driving skills actually translate to “good driving”…. at least in this situation.

    • Anne says:

      Ha! Your MA story reminds me of a quote from the book, where a New Englander is quoted as saying something like, “You mean people [early mergers] leave their lane voluntarily??” He just couldn’t believe it. 🙂

      Also reminds me: my father-in-law worked on a job in Boston 4 days a week for two years, and my mother-in-law wouldn’t let him drive her places when he came home to the midwest on the weekends. She said his driving became so aggressive during the time he spent in Boston that it scared the daylights out of her to ride passenger with him behind the wheel!

  8. Christa says:

    The thing that makes me squirm is slowing down when someone is on my tail, to force them to back up. It’s the safe thing to do, if you can’t get out of the way, but I know they are shooting daggers at me. I always merge early because it seemed helpful, but NOW I am going to have to re-think that and add another book to the list.

    • Jennifer says:

      i am the same way about slowing down (or just maintaining the proper speed limit) when someone is tailgating me. I always do it because I know it’s not safe to have them so close or to speed up, but I know they are cursing me.

  9. Jeannie says:

    I’m so with you on this! I like to be “good” and merge early; I think of those who merge late as bad, inattentive, inconsiderate. But I’m sure the writer is right that there is a science to merging and that the zipper effect is more efficient and fluid. I agree with Erica above that we take things too personally: “AAGGHH that red car thinks it’s so much better than me.” 🙂

  10. MelissaJoy says:

    Late merger all the way. Seriously, it’s something we all should be doing. Then hopefully nobody will feel like a jerk.

  11. Kathleen says:

    Ha, this is so true, but makes perfect sense!

    I think this is different, though: when a highway is splitting (not merging) and one side of the split has a long line of traffic on it and a car drives all the way to the front before cutting in. I feel like that’s jerky.

  12. Sarah M says:

    This is hilarious….I really think it’s WHERE in the country you are as to what the unspoken rules of the road are.
    I’m from Nebraska and even in my city of Lincoln (350K), if you don’t merge over (even though there are no sighs, so out of towners are always out of luck here) when the 4 lane roads turn down to 2, you are given the stink eye, raced to the end of the merge, etc. It’s completely crazy and my husband from well-populated Vancouver (BC), was not having that. He is the latest merger I know and it was sometimes embarrassing the honks and fingers he’d get, but he’s an excellent driver. He would always say, “the rest of the world doesn’t drive like this!”and try to single-handedly change their minds about merging, by doing it ‘the right way’ and go one car by one car.
    Now we live out in the Pacific Northwest, where people are much better drivers (and merge really well one-by-one, but are incredibly impatient and pass on the right if you don’t get over in a fraction of a second. It’s all a give and take, I guess. It’s been interesting to notice the regional differences, generally, how people drive, though.
    Sarah M

  13. Mallory says:

    I was reading about this yesterday!

    I have never felt comfortable utilizing the perhaps outdated custom of not tipping the owner of a restaurant whenever they serve you. I would feel like a jerk for not leaving a tip. There are too many what-ifs, and I can’t justify not leaving one.

  14. jessica says:

    This is SO interesting!! Several of my MAIN pet peeves has to do with driving. I need to read this book…although maybe it will just make me more annoyed with bad drivers.

  15. I just shared this on my FB page to my Oregonian friends. Growing up in Southern California this was just the way things were. When I moved north, no one did this, so I felt rude. Now I’m going back to my original ways. Thanks for providing the explanation!

  16. Steph says:

    Oh wow! I’m an early merger. My husband is a late merger which I’ve never condoned. I’ll have to send him this link with a “you’re right.”

  17. Laura says:

    I haven’t read the book but somehow I only believe this works if the drivers in the lane being merged into leave a gap for the zippering cars. If everyone rides bumper to bumper & only begrudgingly let’s the merging cars in…I believe it slows down the whole process!!!

    • liz n says:

      I think that’s the problem, right there, especially in heavy traffic or, like we’ve had going on for five years in the Dallas area, highway construction. I’m one of those “let other drivers into the lane” people, and it chaffs me to no end when people behind me won’t slow down when they see my brake lights, or when they won’t let other drivers into the lane. Just where does everyone have to be that’s so important they must be there four seconds before everyone else? Are we so territorial that we can’t give up a car length to another driver? Dallas is a later-merger town, by the way, but I’m an early merger, because we don’t necessarily follow the “drive friendly” directive on our license plates…if you wait to merge late, you’ll wait an eternity. If you merge early, you’ll wait half an eternity.

  18. Megan says:

    I don’t get it!! I don’t care what research says….I will never become a late merger and will continue to be annoyed by those who wait until the last second to cut in!! Grrr!

    • Bonnie-Jean says:

      If everyone just stayed in their lane and took turns allowing those in the closing lane to merge then there wouldn’t be ‘late’ mergers and traffic would flow much more smoothly!

  19. Kate says:

    Oh, I was just thinking about that book the other day! I’ve been meaning to read it forever.

    The difficulty around here is that the lane closure signs usually don’t say how far you have before you have to move over, so it can be anywhere from half a block to half a mile, and if there’s a hill or a curve, you can’t always see where the cones start. Also, people in Northern California are complete jerks about letting people merge in any situation, so your best bet is to move over as soon as you have the chance.

  20. Sloan says:

    Oh man! That is very interesting. I am an “early merger” also and definitely give some dirty looks to those late mergers. I may have to change my ways….

  21. Jessica says:

    Count me in the ‘early merger’ category. Also the ‘gets upset with late mergers’ category as well! Ha, I might have to read this book. This may be a different situation, but my biggest pet peeve is when the lane ends only about a tenth of a mile after the sign, or directly after an intersection(especially if the lane that ends is a clearly marked turn only lane). There are two such areas right by my house, and I have no problem letting you in if you turn your blinker on and wait a second for me to react. More often, though, the driver trying to merge never indicates and speeds up to cut me off. That’s when I get too personal about my car, as another commenter said. At that point, I feel the person that’s in the continuing lane should go first in an every other car situation. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. I might still get upset, though! 😉

  22. Karlyne says:

    This works getting out of a parking lot after a concert or a rodeo where everybody is, hopefully, driving slowly and it’s stop and go. But, if you have a long line of traffic that is moving along nicely in the left lane and then the “late merger” has zipped by on the right and is now stopped and trying to get in, well, you’ve got a broken zipper!

  23. Amy says:

    As a Minnesotan I can honestly say the campaign hasn’t changed a thing. People still merge early and still block late mergers, making the whole thing worse. I have adopted the late merge for time savings and everytime it seems less dangerous then stomping on my brakes to get in early. When the lanes come together, traffic starts moving and merging is easier as long as people don’t hold a grudge!

    • Anne says:

      Well, bummer. I’m sorry to hear this. The data coming out of your state shows that instead of 20% of people believing that zipper merging is best, now 80% do. That last 20% must make a really big difference. 🙁

  24. Grace says:

    This is awesome! I have always been a late merger. I believed that it would be better if everyone were, but I had no real proof other than my intuition, haha. I have even converted some of my friends to become late mergers and they’re always impressed with how much smoother the actual merging goes. Plus because hardly anyone merges properly, you get to blow past the huge line up of people who merged too early.

  25. Bonnie says:

    NOT letting the “cheaters” cut in?? Hahaha

    But, seriously, if the zipper merge is to become the law of the land, there has to be education and everyone has to be “in on it.” Because where I live, the late mergers ARE just trying to get ahead of the rest of us.

  26. Ana says:

    Whoa. You just blew my mind with this. It’ll change the way I drive and think about others. I always assumed late-mergers were jerks because I had a “friend” who always did this who was kind of a jerk…

  27. VAMama says:

    I live in Germany, and the ‘zipper merge’ makes me crazy—-but the road system here has no rhyme nor reason, is massively overcrowded, always under construction, and impossibly narrow. They had no choice but to implement the system. Locals drive arrogantly and aggressively, with lines on the road regarded as mere suggestions….

    • Anne says:

      I’ve only spent a few hours, total, on the Autobahn, but your comments about drivers there pretty much echoes what our German hosts said.

  28. Emily says:

    I actually didn’t know anything about the “zipper” technique until my husband (who lived in Europe for a brief time) told me. I still haven’t worked up the nerve to be a late merger, though!

  29. Corby says:

    California is late merger all the way. Drives my mom who is from Michigan crazy when she comes to visit me. And here people don’t speed up just to close you out.

  30. I just read about this recently and I’m having such a hard time coming to terms with it! I’m with you, that I’d feel like a jerk doing it, given how many years I’ve considered it rude behavior but… but…

  31. Bonnie-Jean says:

    Argh Anne yet another book you’ve got me intrigued about and have added to my to read list! My husband has always said that merging is a better way and I now have to agree. If everyone stays in their lane and merges as the lane ends then they’re not ‘late’ mergers! As a convert to this system now the ‘jerks’ to me are those who don’t let the mergers in!

  32. I am totally a merge when I see the sign person.

    I am always amazed at how I talk to people in other cars and gripe at them. Does everyone do this? Or just people with anger issues? I am infinitely more aware of it when my kids are with me. I don’t curse, but it just seems silly to yell at people who can’t hear me.

  33. Leah says:

    haha, what a timely post! My boyfriend and I just got back from vacation Monday afternoon and even though we were only on the road for 3ish hours on the return trip, that was plenty for us. 🙂 It’s been said that Pennsylvania’s state bird is the traffic cone…yep. That certainly felt right.

    I would have never guessed that waiting until the last second was the ‘correct’ thing to do! I get over the second I see a Lane Ends sign and always hated the people who zoom ahead.

    • Anne says:

      I have never heard that particular “state bird” joke. Trying to decide if a traffic zone is better or worse than the mosquito that so many states claim as theirs…. 😉

  34. I’m an early merger. Even in “polite” Canada, people don’t like letting other cars in. I usually let in every other car 😉 I can see the value of the zipper method, but I’m such a nervous driver (I hate merging!) that I’d rather be in the lane I need to stay in. I almost always plan ahead and pick my lane accordingly. And I hate left turns, especially with no traffic lights, so I’ve been known to plan my route according to the least number of left turns involved.

  35. Faith R says:

    This is so interesting!! I would feel like a jerk too, but will try to remember to do that. Nobody likes traffic snarls. I feel like a jerk whenever I pull out in front of someone. But I live in a neighborhood off if a busy road where if you want to get out you have to pull out in front of someone.
    Also, I noticed – especially when my kids were smaller and I was hauling my (then) crew of four kids age six and under – that people got out of my way, let me go first, and were generally really nice about doorways and hallways, and that carried over into my driving. I expected people to let me go first… I had to get that under control this year!!

  36. I think late merging is very efficient, but at the same time one has to merge correctly. The problem with late merging on American roads is the lack of alternation. In other countries it’s “merging car, lane car, merging car, lane car.” In American it’s “lane car, merging car, merging car, one more squeezing in merging car, car that’s already past the merge but attempting to get further up anyway, lane car.” If individuals learned how to merge correctly, late merging wouldn’t be a problem, but until then it can be far safer merging a little earlier.

  37. Beth says:

    I hate merging in general. Whenever I am in heavy traffic I feel like no one leaves anyone else the appropriate amount of space to merge. I try looking for a way to merge as early as I can knowing that it might take me the entire remaining lane to be able to merge.

    Ever since having kids 5 years ago, I feel acutely aware of how aggressive driving is in general and how most people (it seems) are not that helpful to or considerate of other drivers. My daily time on the highway with 2 little kids often leaves me quite nervous about the likelihood of an accident.

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