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?)