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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Getting There: Polite merging is slowing us all down

Traffic backs in the north-bound lanes of Interstate 75 near the Georgia-Florida state line. Waiting in a merged line tends to slow down traffic, contrary to the common etiquette. (John Bazemore / AP)

You’re doing it wrong.

When it comes to merging, the aggressive motorist usually wins the day, jamming his way into place, cutting ahead of patient and defensive drivers and reinforcing the idea that they best way to merge is to be jerk.

We’ve all been there. Driving along a two-lane highway when “Road Construction Ahead” warning signs appear. As a conscientious driver, you move to the appropriate lane as early as possible, and expect others to do the same.

And then, at the last minute, someone in a zippy car flies ahead of all those polite motorists and squeezes his way in. How unfair. How rude. How … smart.

Before you fly this guy the bird, you may just thank him. Because you’re doing it wrong. Not him.

Just think about it. If all of the vehicles in a congested section of a two-lane road suddenly shift to one lane, the road capacity will be cut in half and traffic will slow way down. While traffic should slow in a construction zone, at the very least for the safety of workers, traffic engineers still want traffic to flow.

The solution: merge late. Be that guy.

Tom Vanderbilt calls these two types of mergers “Early Mergers” and “Late Mergers.” In his book, “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do,” Vanderbilt argues that we’ve all been trained to be the patient motorists who merge early, but we’re wrong.

“The beauty of the Late Merge system is that it removes the insecurity or anxiety drivers may feel in choosing lanes, as well as their annoyance with a passing ‘cheating’ driver,” he wrote. “There is, presumably, no lane jumping or jockeying, as the flow or speed should be no better or worse in one lane than another – hence there are fewer chances for rear-end collisions. Because cars are using both lanes to the end point, the queue is cut in half.”

The “Late Merge” is at times referred to as the zipper, and a growing number of traffic engineers and transportation departments are promoting such a move, in an attempt to breakdown long-ingrained habits that happy, polite drivers have allowed to calcify in their unthinking motoring brain.

The Late Merge was first introduced in the late 1990s in Pennsylvania as a response to aggressive driving in work zones and other merge locations. The system simply installed a series of signs. First came “Use Both Lanes to Merge Point.” Then, “Road Work Ahead.” Finally, “Merge Here Take Your Turn.”

It worked. Using such a system increased the volume of cars moving through a work zone by 15 percent, and there was a 50 percent decrease in the length of the line of vehicles.

Getting our heads around the Late Merge may take more than appreciating statistics. Paraphrasing Vanderbilt, an article in the New York Times summed it up, saying people shouldn’t apply their “off-road sensibilities” to their driving.

“A person would be considered rude if he or she walked to the head of a line of customers waiting for a bank teller. A driver in a free lane who zipped to the merge point and then tried to cut in could be judged similarly. Some drivers then take it upon themselves to become traffic monitors, enforcing societal norms and straddling the lanes to block those who might try to get ahead,” the article said.

That’s called vigilante justice, and it’s a sure way to inspire road rage and slow traffic. Vanderbilt encouraged motorists to embrace something that we’ve been taught to reject.

“Merging late, that purported symbol of individual greed, actually makes things better for everyone,” Vanderbilt told the paper.

So, angry drivers with a heightened sense of injustice, breathe deep. You’re part of a large and complex system that’s difficult to comprehend – especially when you’re late for work and surrounded by cutters. Remember they’re making traffic flow better, even if they’re acting out of purely selfish reasons.

Follow suit, and wait to merge.

Summertime is here

The warm weather has brought us out of our wintertime caves, and the fun is closing some streets this Friday.

Starting Friday and continuing through the summer, “Food Truck Fridays” will close Wall Street between Main Avenue and Spokane Falls Boulevard from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

The same day, from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m., the Sheridan Shuffle will close Fourth Avenue between Freya and Florida streets; Florida, Myrtle and Rebecca streets between Fourth and Sixth avenues; and Sixth between Florida and Rebecca.

Also this Friday only, the Spokane Festival of Speed will close Bernard Street from Spokane Falls Boulevard to Main Avenue from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Lastly, the annual ArtFest begins Friday and runs through Sunday at Coeur d’Alene Park in the Browne’s Addition neighborhood. Traffic limitations will occur on Chestnut Street between Third and Fourth avenues, which will allow southbound traffic only. A block south, on Chestnut Street between Third and Second avenues, will be limited to northbound traffic only.

Maxwell and Mission redo done

The restriping of Maxwell and Mission streets between Maple and Washington streets is almost done.

The $320,000 project reduced the road from four lanes to three, with a lane in each direction and a center turn lane. Bike lanes were added and, where space allowed, some parking spots. Curb bump-outs are being added at Cedar, Adams and Jefferson streets. On-street parking will be removed between approximately Madison and Washington streets.

Division corridor resurface

The Washington State Department of Transportation is resurfacing Division, Browne and Ruby streets from Interstate 90 to Euclid Avenue. Drivers should be alert during evening and overnight hours – from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. – and can expect multiple lane closures for paving and asphalt grinding.

Costco roundabout work continues

U.S. Highway 2 is reduced to one lane in each direction for work on a roundabout between Winchester and Farwell roads near the future location of Costco north of Spokane. Drivers should be alert for slow traffic, congestion and delays, especially during commute hours. They should seek alternate routes.

Speaking of roundabouts

On June 6, the Spokane Regional Transportation Council is hosting a Roundabout Community Conversation from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at CenterPlace Regional Event Center in Spokane Valley, 2426 N. Discovery Place.

A panel of “national roundabout experts” will be discussing all kinds of roundabout stuff, from roundabout trends around the country to how roundabouts can improve a community. They’ll talk about how to correctly use them, because judging by the comments this column receives when roundabouts are broached, no one really knows how.

The Roundabout Community Conversation will be hosted by Spokane County Commissioner Al French.

Panelists include Hilary Isebrands from the Federal Highway Administration; Randy Johnson with DKS Associates; Rachel Price from Roundabotix; and Doug McClanahan, Dina Swires and Brian Walsh from WSDOT.