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Those drivers who cut in at the last minute? They're the ones doing it right

Cars should use both lanes for as long as possible, and at the last second, drivers need to coordinate, slow down and take turns, one after another, as they move into the new single lane. It looks just like the closing of a zipper.
Cars should use both lanes for as long as possible, and at the last second, drivers need to coordinate, slow down and take turns, one after another, as they move into the new single lane. It looks just like the closing of a zipper. Creative Commons

You’re driving down the road, jigging in your seat to your favorite Taylor Swift album, windows open and carefree. But suddenly, you see it — that big orange sign with its ominous message, “Right lane closed ahead.”

After the necessary groaning, you put your head on a swivel and try to merge as soon as you can, because you know that if you keep on in the same lane, you’re going to have to wait for some kind Samaritan to let you in at the last minute.

But waiting until the last second is exactly what you’re supposed to do, traffic experts say.

It’s called the zipper merge, and it’s been shown in studies to be more efficient, much faster and much safer than merging “politely” before you are forced to cut in front of someone.

“Most motorists start to merge as soon as they see warning signs and learn which lane ahead is closed. When the highway is not heavily congested and traffic is able to move at the speed limit, it is best to merge early into the open lane,” wrote the Missouri Department of Transportation.

But when traffic is already fairly heavy, drivers will move into the new open lane very quickly, blocking it off completely for the drivers still in the soon-to-be-closed lane. To get in to the now heavily-congested lane, they’ll slow down, speed up, cut in at dangerous times, and just generally become anxious and less predictable.

Plus, when a kind person does decide to let someone in, they have to stop completely, causing all vehicles behind them to stop completely as well, making the traffic even worse.

The solution, experts say, is the zipper merge.

Cars should use both lanes for as long as possible, and at the last second, drivers need to coordinate, slow down and take turns, one after another, as they move into the new single lane. It looks just like the closing of a zipper.

It’s tough for experienced drivers to wrap their heads around, because it feels like cutting someone off at the last second, which is dangerous. But if drivers understand what to do, it becomes much safer. And it’s easier to understand than you may think.

When the Missouri Department of Transportation showed the different merging methods to children, the kids couldn’t understand why people didn’t just take turns.

The Kansas Department of Transportation even made an animated video with two talking traffic cones explaining how to perform the maneuver.

“By using two full lanes of traffic until the merge, you reduce the difference in speed between the two lanes. The length of backups is reduced 40-50 percent. When both lanes continue to move slowly, everyone is equally delayed, which reduces road rage,” the MODOT wrote.

Twitter users are getting into the zipper merge too.

Be on the lookout for opportunities to use the zipper merge, or for signs that say “use both lanes.”

Scott Berson: 706-571-8578, @ScottBersonLE

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