Dear Lancaster County: You can’t handle the zipper merge.
You get angry.
You cut people off.
You block other drivers.
Sometimes you even crash.
Your inability to grasp a seemingly simple traffic pattern — designed to safely bring two lanes of traffic into one — has even flustered state police and Pennsylvania’s top transportation experts.
They’ve thrown up their hands.
They’ve abandoned the idea of teaching drivers the art of the zipper merge here.
In PennDOT’s words: Too many of us are impatient behind the wheel.
“I don’t know what it is about our area, but we have a lot of people with a lot of road rage,” said Fritzi Shreffler, a spokeswoman for PennDOT.
A winning design
Zipper merge is the concept that traffic flow and safety are improved at lane closures if motorists use both lanes up until the merge point, and then take turns, like a zipper.
Studies by the University of Nebraska suggest the zipper merge — or late merge — is so much more efficient that it could cut the line of waiting cars in half.
Although PennDOT details the benefits of zipper merge in its traffic engineers manual — and cites the University of Nebraska studies — it leaves implementation up to each of its 12 districts.
“Field experience in Pennsylvania has showed mixed results with the late merge concept across the state. In some cases it has worked well and in others it has not,” the manual says.
Even if signs tell motorists to “use both lanes” and “take turns at the merge point,” Shreffler says drivers in District 8, the eight-county region that includes Lancaster County, tend to merge early and then get upset when others go by them.
That’s what’s been happening near the roadwork zone on Route 222 north approaching the Ephrata exit. Fifteen motorists have been cited since Aug. 19 for trying to block passing vehicles at the construction area.
“The Pennsylvania State Police advises all drivers to not take traffic control matters into their own hands by blocking lanes of travel before work zones,” said Trooper Brent Miller, a state police spokesman.
Yet in PennDOT District 11, which includes Allegheny and Beaver counties, zipper merging has been effectively easing congestion for years.
“We’ve been using it so long around here, people are used to it,” said Todd Kravits, the district's traffic engineer.
The success of zipper merging in other areas just adds to the frustration of its Lancaster County devotees.
Rebecca Millen, a 28-year-old children’s book editor from New Holland, said zipper merging worked when she lived in New Jersey, but isn’t well understood here.
“I constantly try to explain to people that if there are two perfectly good lanes, use them until you can’t anymore,” she says.
“I get frustrated seeing people stack up as soon as they seen the sign,” says Isaiah Martin, a 30-year-old Lancaster resident who works in land development and counts himself a late-merger. “I always thought I was being a little bit jerky but then I realized I had science on my side.”
But Sylvia VanWildern, a 76-year-old retired fabric store manager from West Chester, says a motorist passing cars up to the merge point is usually just “some idiot,” not an enlightened person doing their best to keep traffic flowing.
“It irritates the heck out of me when I see people passing,” said VanWildern, who was visiting Ephrata last week. “They should wait their turn.”
Kevin Lapp, a 56-year-old Manheim Township resident who works in the real estate industry, is a zipper merge aficionado who wonders if people don’t “get it” because of lack of early training.
Indeed, local driving instructors don’t teach zipper merging because they view individual driver safety on the roadway as more important than overall efficiency.
“The big thing is to make their lane change early on,” said Dale Amspacher, chief instructor of A Safe Way Driving School in Lancaster. “I always tell them, the sooner you make the move, the better.”
Richard Hibshman, a longtime driving instruction at Penn Manor High School who now operates his own driving school, agrees. “With young people, we play it the safe way.”