Franklin & Marshall College professor shares $700,000 grant to research safety issues

Fred Owens, emeritus Charles A. Dana professor of psychology at Franklin & Marshall College puts student Lindsay Mehrkam through a test of her driving skills under various conditions in this LNP file photo.

Fred Owens, a retired psychology professor at Franklin & Marshall College, says it’s not surprising Lancaster County drivers have trouble embracing zipper merge.

Owens, who researched driving habits during his 40-year career, says different regions create their own deeply ingrained driving cultures that can be hard to change.

As drivers get more experience, Owens says, they naturally do more things automatically, based on what they’ve seen where they normally drive.

Consequently, if drivers in Lancaster County are accustomed to merging as soon as they can when a lane closes, Owens says it would take a massive reeducation effort for them to change their habits.

“If PennDOT wanted to do it, it would have to have a public information campaign with different signs on roads where they’re doing it so that everyone is thinking ‘zipper, zipper, zipper,” he said.

But since that isn’t happening, drivers fall back on defensive driving habits they learned as young drivers which are reinforced by experience, Owens said.

And without a cultural change, Owens says individual motorists driving past rows of vehicles to a merge point aren’t going to change anything.

“Once they’ve got a situation where that right lane is empty and people are shooting down, the zip thing has already failed,” he said.