Last-Minute Mergers: Why We Hate Them & Need Them - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Last-Minute Mergers: Why We Hate Them & Need Them

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SALISBURY, Md.– It’s a common traffic frustration we’ve all probably dealt with: you’re coming up to a construction zone on the highway and you see a sign that tells you traffic will soon be reduced to a single lane. You’re a thoughtful and considerate member of the road. And so, you make your move into the single lane nice and early, exhaling a slow and drawn out breath as you will yourself into a serene state of patience. After all, you’re not the only one waiting and, like the dozens of cars ahead, you’ve made the choice to sacrifice expediency for the good of society.

Then it happens because, well, it always happens. Some car, truck, or motorcycle (who really cares, It’s the person in it we despise) rolls on by using the wide-open lane, creeps up to the very end of the lane and slides into a spot that’s now going to take you at least five more minutes to reach. They aren't speeding. They aren’t driving recklessly. In fact, they aren’t even breaking a law. But they’re breaking an unwritten law, right?

Well, not exactly. In fact, studies have shown that last-minute mergers are good for traffic. It’s called the zipper merge, named for the way cars alternate merging at the bottleneck point. According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, zipper merging reduces differences in speeds between two lanes and reduces the overall length of traffic backups by as much as 40 percent.

States like Kansas are actually encouraging the zipper merge, with a PSA-style campaign that began in the spring of 2016. Kansas isn’t alone, a number of states in the U.S. are trying to change driver behavior and embrace the late-merge.

Bob Rager, a spokesperson for the Maryland State Highway Administration, doesn’t necessarily share the same view as states like Kansas.

“There’s no advice, there’s no campaign that’s going to apply to all locations at all times,” Rager said.

Rager believes the zipper, or alternate merge, is practical in theory but only worth applying in very specific situations, such as where there’s a high volume of traffic being reduced to a single lane. If traffic is flowing at a fairly steady pace, the safe and smart more is to simply merge into the single lane early.

"Peak times like beach season you'll see a lot of areas where there's a whole lot more traffic,” Rager said. “It makes sense to actually employ the zipper merge.”

The challenge, according to Rager, is changing driver behavior. He said SHA has actually attempted to create an alternate-merge traffic pattern but found no amount of signs made it easy for drivers to understand. What ensued were more confused drivers and thus a greater risk for danger.

In short, the zipper-merge is practical. It does reduce traffic congestion.

However, in a rural area like Delmarva, where traffic doesn’t tend to have a consistently high-volume, you won’t see as many situations where the zipper-merge is needed with the exception of heavy summer-traffic. The priority, said Rager, is making sure drivers put safety first. 

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