The “zipper method” could soon be the new way to merge on Utah roads, after the Legislature approved a bill putting the practice into law.
Lawmakers also advanced pieces of legislation to allow pets to be included in protective orders, change the fee structure for government records requests and give the state oversight of major transit projects.
The zipper method
HB76 sponsor Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, presented the bill as something that would reduce congestion, especially as Utah’s population continues to expand.
The “zipper merge” occurs when a lane of traffic ends, or is obstructed by debris. Rather than merge into a single line well before the merge point, vehicles continue to use two lanes of traffic up to the merge point, then alternate yielding the right-of-way into a single lane.
“When there is a lane that ends, there are three types of drivers,” Brammer said, during a House Transportation Committee hearing last month. “You’ve got the early merger, who moves over immediately. And then there’s someone who speeds to the end of the lane as fast as they can. And then there’s usually some guy in a big pickup truck, that decides to defend the vehicular virtue of all other drivers by going in between both lanes and sitting there to make sure nobody else speeds up to the end.”
Brammer said that current law is vague and generally requires the driver whose lane is ending to yield to the other drivers indefinitely. He said the zipper method has been adopted by other states and could reduce congestion by 40%, just by adopting an “every other car” approach.
“A zipper is a pretty descriptive process,” Brammer said, adding that he thinks the Utah Department of Transportation could easily communicate the method with drivers using the overhead signs along I-15.
Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, pointed out that when there is a lane closed due to construction or an accident, most people line up in the through lane — leaving a large portion of the other lane empty.
“We’re hoping that it not only has the benefit of education, but that it will help some of our passive aggressive drivers that that’s an appropriate way to handle themselves on the highway, to use that zipper merge,” McCay said.
HB76 passed the Senate 21-3 on Thursday, after clearing the House 73-1 on Feb. 3, although opponents of the bill say it would be difficult to enforce and possibly punish drivers who are slow to adopt the change.
“Obviously, zipper merging is more efficient,” said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City. “But the fact of the matter is, is it really something we want to criminalize?”
Thatcher said the people who sit in line to wait their turn get a sense of “moral superiority” whereas those who use the zipper method get to go “10 or 20 cars ahead.”
Major transit projects oversight
House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said that giving the Utah Department of Transportation oversight for some major transit projects could save “billions” over the next couple of decades.
“We have to start thinking 10, 20, 30 years down the road. You think about the congestion going north-south along I-15 right now. We know we cannot widen I-15 enough to meet the demands of the population growth 10 to 20 years from now,” Schultz said in a press conference earlier this month.
HB322 would let the state oversee some major projects, but day-to-day operations would still fall under the Utah Transit Authority’s management.
The bill requires that UDOT develop a written plan for assuming management of “fixed guideway capital development projects,” to be submitted by Oct. 31, 2022. The report could cost the department $250,000.
HB322 passed the House unanimously and was sent to the Senate.
Government records requests
The House also finalized legislation to change how government entities charge those who file a request for public records under the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act or GRAMA.
Earlier this month, the House passed HB96, which would let government entities charge for the first 15 minutes spent locating requested records, if the requester had submitted similar requests recently. The bill was meant to limit “vexatious” requests from private citizens, which cost time and money, even if they are relatively quick to fulfill, according to lawmakers.
After passing the House, the bill was amended by the Senate to allow media outlets and their representatives to have their fees waived for requests that take fewer than 15 minutes. The House concurred with the change and the bill will be sent to the governor’s desk.
Pets and domestic violence
Up to 71% of women at domestic violence shelters have reported that their abusers also threatened their pets as a “means of control,” according to Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, which is why she’s sponsoring legislation to let pets be included in restraining orders.
The Senate passed HB175 26-0 on Thursday, after making a minor language adjustment. The House will need to approve the amendment before the bill moves forward.