You’re cruising down the highway, making good time, all is right with the world, when all of a sudden flashing yellow lights, or an orange sign with arrows on it, inform you of a lane closure ahead.
So you pull out of the lane about to end, assume your position in the lane that is quickly slowing to a crawl and then watch as a few cars that used to be behind you sail right on past toward the merge point in the distance. You silently mutter, “Hey, wait your turn! What a jerk!” or some variation thereof, fervently hoping no one lets the jerk back in line.
But is he, or she, or they, really a jerk?
Or are they actually helping the situation; making it so you can all get where you’re going faster than if everyone did the supposedly polite thing and got in line early?
People who study such things say yes. Using all lanes of traffic for as long as possible can increase traffic flow efficiency by as much as 40%.
It’s called zipper merging and works like this: Vehicles use all available asphalt until the merge point and then take turns going forward, zipper style.
At least 34 states, according to recent news reports, are actively encouraging zipper merging and some are making it the law, including Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio — and Utah.
House Bill 76 — also known as the Zipper Merge Bill — cleared the Legislature almost unanimously in March.
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The history behind HB76 can be traced back to the day last summer when Brady Brammer got stuck in traffic.
He was traveling north on I-15, saw signage that the left lane was closing, so he quickly slid over and soon, predictably, came to a standstill behind other cars that had done the same. He then watched several cars whiz by him in the left lane, until finally, a semitruck driver couldn’t take it any longer and pulled his rig over so it straddled the two lanes, effectively blocking anyone from using the left lane at all.
“This isn’t working right,” Brammer thought to himself as he stared at the vacant left lane. “Somebody should do something about this.”
Remembering back on that moment a year later, he smiles wryly.
“That’s a really convenient thought if you’re not somebody who can do something about it,” he says, “but if you’re a legislator it’s a horrible thought because all of a sudden you realize you’re the person who could do something about it.”
Brammer is a legislator. He represents District 27 — Alpine, Highland and Cedar Hills — in the Utah House. He could do something about it.
As he sat there stuck in traffic, hot, frustrated and going nowhere, he remembered reading something about the zipper merge.
When he finally got to the office, he found an online presentation from Cincinnati extolling zipper merging and explaining its benefits. Further research informed him that driver’s advocacy groups such as AAA endorse zippering.
He read headlines from online websites such as this one from Inc.: “Rude Drivers Who Merge at the Last Moment Are Actually Helping You, Traffic Experts Agree.”
Absorbing all this information, Brammer put his legislative hat on, sat down at his computer and wrote up a draft of a proposed zipper merge bill, which he then took to the Department of Public Safety and the Utah Department of Transportation to get their reaction.
“We’ve been wanting to do this for a while,” they told him.
When Brammer presented his bill to the Legislature, HB76 passed the House by 73-1 and the Senate by 21-3.
The Zipper Merge Bill was officially signed into law by Gov. Spencer Cox on March 21.
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Now the challenge is educating Utah drivers before someone starts a fistfight.
“We’re going to need signage,” says Brammer, who sees the electronic boards on the freeways as a good way to get the word out. “They’re not there just for pithy sayings, they’re there to help educate.”
Early warning signs in construction zones that warn of lane closures and announce “use zipper merge method” with a symbol showing how it’s done would be invaluable.
Ideally, road rage will go down.
“I think if we can provide appropriate signage and education, we’ll have less road rage and frustration because traffic will move faster,” says Brammer. “People will see that it makes sense.”
To a man who lives in Utah County and commutes regularly to the Capitol in Salt Lake City, the only thing that doesn’t make sense is staying with the status quo.
“We’re under construction and we will be without end,” he says. “Population is going to keep going up and demand for roads is not going down. There’s going to be lane closures. That’s a fact of life.”
We just have to get smarter about how we handle it — and redefine what qualifies as a “jerk.”