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Sept 5 Show #946- Regarding "The Merge"

I am sorely disappointed in the Tappet Brothers’ response to Brian from Harrisonville’s inquiry regarding “The Merge”. When a lane is marked for closure ahead, but is left open for a certain distance prior to merging, it is my firm belief that that roadway was left open for USE. I have never understood the notion of including oneself in a long line when there was an open lane available…I mean, where does it start, where does it end? Are you suggesting we cross to the non-closed lane the minute we see the first sign - “Merge 1500 feet” - or does one wait till the second sign “Merge 1000 feet” - or possibly the third? I simply do not see this as an issue of etiquette, any more than I see selecting the shortest line at the grocery store a social evil. I submit that the traffic engineers meant for the soon-to-be-closed lane to be used right up until the actual merge, and as a driver in the Tri-state area of NJ, NY & PA, I will continue in my belief regardless of those who get angry at me for having the guts to cruise up that still-open lane while they crawl along stewing about their lack of independence. Are Brian and I alone in our driving beliefs here?

You are absolutely right, the way to get the most cars through this kind of situation in a given amount of time is to fill up both lanes and merge alternately at the end, so say traffic engineers. This is like what you do at a ski resort, multiple lanes of skiers merge at the lift. So neither the ‘merge as soon as you know it’s coming’ nor the ‘speed past all those suckers who merged early’ approach is correct.

I lived in a Chicago suburb where I went through a 2 lane to 1 lane merge every day on the way to work during rush hour. Cars filled both lanes until they had to merge and then they alternated. It worked very well.

There is only a problem when some drivers see it one way and others the other. What is the point of moving over to the open lane as soon as you see the sign, just to get mad at those who don’t see it the same way as you? Why is that any better than alternating at the merge?

Federal Highway Authority tested both techniques. They recommend filling both lanes and merging late. See:

But the initial situation is “unstable” and will collapse to two possibilities: two full lanes and a “zipper merge” at the end, or one full lane with “encroaching cheaters blocked by vigilantes” at the end.

Here’s my mail to the show:


Hi guys. One of today’s questions was, when merging, should you get in line early? Or, should you put some extra traffic in the empty lane by merging down near the end?

Clearly this is …a Religion!

Should you be “Good,” by getting in line with everyone else? Or should you become “Evil” by racing down to the end of the empty lane and then butt in at the head of the line? The “Good” drivers should then become vigilantes, and block the “Evil cheaters” from merging?

You told a story of Medford 93 exit and a guy in a BMW convertible with his top down, so you could actually converse as he tried to butt in. You answered that the “evil cheating” is legal, yet immoral, and you recommended blocking them from merging.

Wrong answer, wrong because there is a third option.

There’s Good, Evil, and then there’s “Zen.” In the “Zen” option you do something totally different, and your simple action (heh) …destroys the good/evil dichotomy! Shatters competitive worldview! Transforms hundreds of drivers into “fellow humans!” It’s a Third Path. Sounds unbelievable, but I’ve done the “Zen” trick myself many times. Apparently it’s also a secret known to long-haul truckers.

This third option has been much discussed by traffic authorities, and even tested and found correct by Federal Highway Admin. (But they never tell drivers this. Drivers are supposed to be Unwashed Masses, so if traffic authorities actually communicated with the public, what? …would our infectious stupidity contaminate the traffic experts? Better keep away from us!)

Anyway, here’s the 3rd-option Zen answer:

Use the empty lane, but do not race to the end under any circumstances. Instead drive slowly. Choose another car in the full lane, and camp out next to them, inching along as they do. When you get to the end of the empty lane, merge. You didn’t cheat, so they won’t block you.

When you do this, something else happens. Other “cheaters” get stuck behind you. They move as you do. New drivers arriving at the exit then get into your shorter lane, and quickly both lanes fill up behind you. And …and then “cheating” becomes totally impossible! There is no empty lane anymore. Both lanes move at the same speed, and drivers act civilized, rapidly taking turns merging down at the far end. The average flow speeds up, because no longer are there any slow-motion fights between Evil cheaters and Good vigilantes. After you yourself merge, the new pattern persists.

As a Black Belt martial arts commuter, you have gently poked the weakest spot of hundreds of other commuters, causing their competitive asshattery to evaporate like the illusion it always was.

Here’s a website where this issue was tested against the “empty lane block the cheaters” philosophy. Late merge wins! :

Thanks for making me “website of the week” on a few years back. I’ve now got a domain name, and I was even interviewed by Discovery Channel “The Truth about Traffic” last week.

I think it’s illegal to block cheaters who try to merge, but it’s not illegal for them to race down to the end of an empty lane. Did you just admit to habitual illegal driving on your show, and even recommend that others break the law in the same way? (It might be a state law only, and not illegal in Mass.)

Effective utilization of all the lanes will reduce the length of the bottleneck and, therefore, reduce the time spent before the resumption of full traffic flow. Merge at the latest moment plus courtesy and cooperation of drivers will make for a smooth alternate merge and minimize the delay for all.
Behavior suggested by The Elder Brother (Is that The Click or The Clack?) is a type of road rage and everyone is reminded not to drive like that brother even if his sense of injury were justified. But The Elder has chosen his lane, ought to learn to live with his choice and refrain from impeding the smooth flow of traffic. And we all ought to learn how to deal with our sense of entitlement when behind the wheel of a car. Dueling cars is not the way to deal with a grievance. SIMCHA

Wrong, wrong, wrong!

I’m a truck driver, and I see this all of the time, and I believe that those guys rushing up the empty lane to cut in front of everybody else are actually making the traffic jam worse.

Ideally, people should sift from the closing lane into the open lane far from the actual closure, back where the traffic is still moving. People already in the open lane should slow down, just slightly, to allow for more space in between cars, to allow the others to merge safely. If more people did this, there would be fewer cars at the point at which the closed lane ends, and less need for those in the open lane to come to a complete stop in order to let the slackers in.

Think of the lanes coming together like a deck of cards being shuffled. You start with two short decks (2 halfs of the same deck, actually) and spread the cards out with your thumbs. This is to provide more space between the cards so there is room to combine the two stacks. This is not unlike what should be done, ideally, when two lanes become one. What happens when, instead of spreading out the cards, you simply try to force the two stacks together? You end up with a lot of bent cards, and you still have two stacks, not one.

So, as you can see, there are actually practical reasons for merging as soon as possible when you find out that a lane is closing ahead of you.

I’d say wrong wrong wrong back to you - at least partly. The “shuffle” image is exactly right, and the slowdown to stop of traffic at a merge comes from people not allowing the shuffle to happen - as in when drivers in the lane(s) remaining open don’t make room for merging cars. You are also right in that this normally does require a partial slow down on everyone’s part.

Anyway, if you go through this thread and the other one ( you’ll see that quite a few DOTs have done extensive study on this and want people to use both lanes up until the merge point. Using both lanes up to the merge works better empirically. But the success depends on the shuffle, and it is morons like Tom trying to enforce some misguided “morality”- that is contrary to the design of the merge - that screws up the shuffle by not leaving room for merging cars. That is what grinds things to a halt.

I strongly agree with most of the other posts to date: Tappet Brothers – wrong answer. The most egalitarian way to deal with the situation is for everyone to stay in their lane until all arrive at the end, and then alternate at the merge. There is no way to be truly fair with any other method; inevitably, people will have different views of what is the proper and moral time to merge. It is better to have a clear rule to follow so that there is no question of “doing the right thing”. “Stay in your lane and merge at the end, alternating car by car” leaves no room for personal moral differences to affect the merge, and avoids bad feelings all around.
I lived in Southern California for a number of years, and even with the wide variety of personality types found on the roads there, I never once felt that I was cheated out of my proper place in a merge–everyone stayed in their lane and merged systematically at the end.

I now agree with the other posts that both lanes should be populated but there was a time when I didn’t …

I had just moved from rural Washington State to Boston, Mass and getting used to the creative driving habits of Bostonians. On my commute every day I would drive on Route 30 in Natick which was a two-lane road with one-lane in each direction. There was one traffic light where the westbound lane would open to two lanes to get through the light and quickly condense back to one lane directly after. The two lane expanse was about 500 feet before and after the intersection. It should come as no surprise that motorists would often use this second lane to zip by 3,4 or 5 cars and cut in front at the merge. I would get so irate(!) that I would engage in a monolgue of getures and colorful verbs and adverbs to no avail.

Finally I had the answer. I would call the Massachusettes Dept of Transportation and get to the bottom of why these knuckleheads would design such a crazy and conflict creation. After being forwarded to 3 different engineers, “wacko on line 3”, I finally had someone give me a straight forward answer.

After numerous studies and dollars spent it was determined that by having more lanes open through an intersection, a higher volume of cars could get through before the light changes and therefore reduce the backlog of cars in queue. This is exactly the same reason that your Medford exit utilizes two lanes to go through the traffic light.

If the lane is still open, the DOT is telling you to use it. If they wanted you to merge 1/2 mile back, they would have placed the cones there. I see this now with clarity and purpose in my old age, and yes I drive a Saab :slight_smile:

I can see both arguments. However it is not what I think or what the professionals decide is safest, there will always be the type A personalities who can’t help but to put themselves ahead of everyone else in the line and there will be those who are considerate of others and will stay in that single line.

In short, it is not going to change.

I simply do not see this as an issue of etiquette, any more than I see selecting the shortest line at the grocery store a social evil.

I don't see this at all in the same way.  Besides, every time I get in the shortest line at the grocery store, the one person in front of me just got the wrong brand of beans and everyone stops while the bagger goes back to get the other brand.  :-)

On the Everett Turnpike here in NH we’ve had a long term construction project going on adding a new interchange complete with ramp tollbooths.

The problem with the lane mergers became so bad that they posted huge blinking-light signs telling drivers to “use both lanes fully before merging”. I’m not sure, but I think they did this before weapons started being drawn.

What this selfish viewpoint fails to note is that by zipping to the the point of the merge and shoving your way into line, you cause everyone behind you to have to stop, making the merge worse for everyone except you, of course. That’s way everyone hates you when you do this. Either do the zipper, which means slowing to match speed with everyone else and merging while moving, or get in line. Racing to the front then pushing in is the source of the problem not the solution.

I agree with Josie, but in their defense I am not sure that the Tappet Brothers’ response to Brian was adressing the exact issue he was questioning, that of the early merge in a lane closure situation (ie a construction zone). I think most can agree that it is more efficient to maximize the use of both lanes until a merge is necessary (thereby reducing the time spent traveling in only one lane), and then politely merge in the “zipper” fashion, alternating lanes. What I REALLY don’t understand is why people merge miles early and then call it cheating when folks continue in the OPEN lane. Think it through… if you did not merge so early, then people would not be able to “cheat” (your words) in the first place! If we all stayed in our lanes and merged when the merge was supposed to happen, we would not have to argue about this.

I have been promoting the late merge concept to my friends (and anyone that would listen) for years. To me it’s just common sense. If there is a sign that says “Lane Closed 1500 feet” that says to me that the traffic engineers want me to be prepared to merge ahead - not now. I know some states promote and enforce early merge, some promote late merge, and some don’t do either. If I see something that promotes early merge I will do so, but if it’s left up to my judgment I am going to do what I believe is the fairest and safest (which is late). What seems most unsafe to me is everyone deciding a different time to merge and it happening unpredictably.
What is even more amazing is that where I live drivers get mad at “cheaters” like me for going to a designated merge point where there is no construction. When a freeway changes from 3 to 2 lanes and people know it they immediately jump out of the lane that closes half a mile ahead, and then get upset when I stay in it until the designated merge point (which is usually a thousand feed or so before the lane actually closes).
Question for “wbeaty”… Did you get a response from Tom and/or Ray to your e-mail? Tom’s rant did a lot to perpetuate the “cheater” mentality. I wish he would acknowledge that there is another point of view.


Didn’t know that. It would be nice if the signage would tell people that.

Something like “STAY IN LANE - MERGE AT END” on one side, “ALLOW ONE CAR TO MERGE WHEN OTHER LANE ENDS” on the other.

T&R never respond here, ever.

I winced when Tommy gave his wrong answer to this question on the air a couple of weeks ago. I knew he was speaking as an aggrieved, secret road rager, and not as the engineer MIT trained him to be. And no, I’m not a guy like the Beamer driver who blasts around everyone because me and my spare time are more important than everyone else’s.

Actually, Tommy’s strategy causes unnecessary delay at merge points. Merging too early, at the first opportunity instead of zipper-like at the merge point, only slows things down unnecessarily for people in the one open lane. And if Tommy thought about it for a minute or two from the standpoint of engineering efficiency, watched an overhead simulation of the situation, or read those state DOT studies of the question, he’d realize he was telling people to do it the wrong way if his goal was, as he professed, egalitarianism. The most efficient solution that causes the fewest delays for everybody is to utilize both lanes equally and normally to the merge point and then take turns alternating into the open lane. Since many Tommy’s of the world are uncomfortable doing that, the best compromise as others have suggested here is for people in the closing lane to slowly match up with somebody in the long line of the open lane to the merge point. In my experience, if you do that, almost everybody graciously lets you in when it’s your turn. They don’t like it when you’ve gone 65 mph past 300 stop-and-go cars to the merge point. So do it slowly. This has one key disadvantage. It ticks the heck out of somebody who needs to turn or exit right out of the closing lane, who gets held up by you. And it really ticks the heck out of the Type A Beamer guys who want to go 65 mph to the merge point. Sorry. Life isn’t perfect.

Um…I respect what they’ve accomplished, but neither Tom or Ray are engineers.

Ah, Tom’s MIT degree is in economics. No wonder efficiency is not his first priority! Thanks for the correction.