Zipper merge

THE ISSUE

The zipper merge, a relatively simple traffic pattern designed to safely bring two lanes of traffic together into one, hasn’t been working out well in Lancaster County. Actually, that’s an understatement. In a front-page story for last weekend’s Sunday LNP, Chad Umble reported that Pennsylvania’s top transportation experts have “abandoned the idea of teaching drivers the art of the zipper merge here.”

In 2015, LNP concisely laid out the overwhelming logic of the zipper merge and the raw human emotions that drive, no pun intended, its failure:

“When motorists have to merge into one lane, they become two different kinds of drivers.

“The early merger gets in the through lane and politely waits in line to get through the bottleneck.

“The late merger cruises up the usually empty non-through lane and tries to merge at the last minute.

“It is probably easy to guess who is driving the right way. Everyone knows what it is like to encounter a jerk. ...

“But guess what? It actually takes both kinds of mergers to make traffic flow smoothly through bottlenecks, according to some experts.

Indeed, it takes two to make this thing go right.

We support the concept of zipper merging. But apparently, it’s tougher in execution than in theory. Especially here.

But why?

Why is peaceful, idyllic Lancaster County, of all places in Pennsylvania, so bad — so averse! — regarding the notion of zipper merging?

Fred Owens, a retired psychology professor at Franklin & Marshall College, told Umble that he’s actually not surprised. He has “researched driving habits during his 40-year career (and) says different regions create their own deeply ingrained driving cultures that can be hard to change,” Umble wrote.

That ingrained habit is this: We are accustomed to merging as soon as we can when a lane closes. That’s what we learn as young drivers, and it’s reinforced by experience.

That makes sense, but we think there are some other factors at play, too. More on those in a moment.

First, we want to share some of our readers’ thoughts; on this issue, they’re as plentiful as traffic cones. We haven’t seen this many letters and comments since we raised the topic of legalized recreational marijuana.

— “Yes I know how to zipper merge, and I will continue to do so. No, I do not think most drivers know how to!”

— “There is nothing more infuriating than when someone thinks they get to decide when it’s time to merge by sitting in the middle of the two lanes to block anyone from passing before the merge. Everyone should use both lanes and kindly merge, one by one, when it’s time to move in to one lane.”

— “I do not like the looks I am given by some drivers who have not learned the zipper merge method or who refuse to use it.”

— “I zipper merged on [Route] 30 yesterday and got honked at, thrown the finger, and even had someone move halfway into the open travel lane ... just to block people from zipper merging. It was RIDICULOUS.”

Most of the comments LNP received were from the pro-zipper merging camp, which we find heartening. But it still seems they are in the minority. And it makes sense that local drivers wouldn’t write to spew venom at those who try to properly use both lanes. It would be a bad look to put it in writing, so perhaps they just stick to their nasty glares, horn-honking and other, even less civil, forms of communication.

And this gets at what we think might be the real crux of the problem: We’re just too angry. Too busy. Too rushed. And too distracted.

Mix in that stress with heavy traffic, hot asphalt, and the signs and orange cones indicating a looming zipper merge and you have ... well, we’ll let Fritzi Shreffler, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, describe it:

“I don’t know what it is about our area, but we have a lot of people with a lot of road rage,” she told Umble.

So what can we do about? How can we assuage the rage?

We can try to change our mentality when behind the wheel. This isn’t a new idea that we’re touting. Last December, we lamented how “many people drive too fast and too aggressively, making Lancaster County’s (and Pennsylvania’s) roads even more dangerous.”

Zipper rage is just another manifestation of that mindset.

When out on the roads, we could all stand to slow down, chill out and remember that the courtesy and graciousness that define us as Lancaster County residents should apply when we’re driving, too.

Consider what Leo Babauta wrote about changing one’s driving mentality on the website Zen Habits: “I drive slower these days. While I used to be a bit of a driving maniac (ask my wife), passing everybody and stepping hard on my accelerator, I would also get increasingly frustrated when people would drive slow and keep me from driving fast, or cut me off. Driving was a stressful experience. Not anymore. These days, driving is a much more calm, serene experience, and I enjoy it much more.”

We could all stand to take that to heart.

And if we do, others will notice. Those kids in the car — likely future drivers — will take their cues from our driving habits, attitudes and stress levels. We can set the example for the next generation.

If we can all work toward a county filled with calmer traffic, then who knows? Some day we might just be in the right frame of mind to fully embrace zipper merging. We’d reap the still-unrealized benefits that we’ve been missing out on for years. Studies show that when everyone uses the zipper merge, traffic flow improves dramatically. In Minnesota, it was found that a proper zipper merge can cut the length of a backup by about 40%.

Doesn’t that sound so much nicer than what we experience now in this county, where we’re apparently so cranky that PennDOT gave up on us?