We in Bellingham and Whatcom County are blessed with having relatively low traffic problems. The recent construction downtown, particularly with the closures due to the Chestnut-Bay Bridge, can set a lot of jaws grinding as traffic snarls. While it’s all relative, we simply don’t have the population of a city center like Seattle down the road, and with it the subsequent irritations of watching brake lights.

However, no one can be completely immune to traffic problems. One of the frequent occurrences on roads is lane closures. A necessary evil, as the roads must be maintained. How many of you give the stink-eye to those drivers who seem to ignore the lane closure signs, refusing to get over until the cones push them to cut in front of you? Wouldn’t it feel better to not let them in? At all, ever? Well, as the Washington State Department of Transportation will tell you, the most efficient way to get over is to wait until the end, actually. While it looks rude, it’s actually faster and safer.

It is called “zipper merging” and, like the teeth of a zipper seamlessly coming together, you may imagine the cars shuffling in that same way. This is how it works: drivers should fill in both lanes coming up to a closure, in equal measure. Within a few car lengths’ from the cone zone, both lanes’ cars should take turns filling in the through lane, and resuming the posted speed through the workers’ zone.

Experts say zipper merging reduces backups by an average of 40%. That means drivers get to move through the construction zone that much faster – a significant difference. This is because both lanes get to ease forward rather than coming to a complete stop. The traffic flow can continue, drivers coast along, allowing for space ahead for other drivers to merge, or if you’re about to merge, trusting that space will be open for you. Works like a dream, even though it more of less sounds like just a dream.

The zipper’s catch, if you will, is that this only works if everyone is on the same page. Not only does every driver have to be aware that this is the proper and most efficient etiquette, but also believe in it. All it takes is one driver clogging up the drivers behind to seemingly cause a chain reaction of blood pressure rising and resistance to kindly letting someone “cut in”.

More education is being done to bring drivers into the fold. In fact, Washington State DOT has its own zipper merge campaign.

“There can be a weird idea going through people’s heads of, like, ‘Oh, these people are cheating, cutting in line!'” Washington State Department of Transportation representative Travis Phelps said to public radio station KUOW. “Well, it actually lets traffic flow if you can let folks in. Play nice. Treat traffic like a team sport. You’ve gotta play the assist role. It’s gonna help lessen the backups.”

The next step is to incorporate this thinking into drivers’ manuals and education classes. Social media and other advertising campaigns can also bring awareness on how to zipper merge. Minnesota Department of Transportation has even gone so far as to install sensors to key roads; when they recognize pile-ups and congestions, electronic signs turn on and tell drivers to fill both lanes and merge at a later point.

The more we can bring ease to the roads, the more we can get to our destinations in better moods. It’s worth a shot, isn’t it?

Bill Coats has decades of experience helping victims of vehicle crashes get on the road to financial recovery. If you’ve been injured in an accident and are wondering what to do next, don’t hesitate to give him a call

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