Let’s talk about lane drop merging technique for a minute. I’ve got an upcoming post about some interesting driving behavior that I’ve been seeing lately, but I feel that we have to get some basic stuff out of the way first, and it’s a big enough topic to warrant its own post.
I’ll be basing a lot of this on my observations and familiarity with my state’s (Michigan) traffic law, so if your state/province/country’s rules differ, please add that to enrich the conversation.
The LANE ENDS MERGE RIGHT sign is there to indicate what’s known as a lane drop. Where there were previously two forward lanes of travel, there will soon be only one. Past a given point, cars may not proceed side-by-side, and must order themselves single-file on the narrow road ahead.
The sign could be there for any number of reasons. Maybe you’re leaving the city limits, and the road is less wide out here in the boonies. Or maybe that lane is about to become a turn-only lane. Or perhaps the roadway is under construction, and traffic is being condensed to avoid closing the road altogether while the work is being done.
Whatever the case may be, you want to be in the lane that continues to take you forward.
So what do you do when you see this sign? [LANE ENDS MERGE RIGHT]
Well, that depends on what lane you’re already in, right? I mean, if you’re already in the right-hand lane, you don’t have to do much of anything but proceed as traffic allows. Indeed, many states require that you select the far right lane by default, staying there until the need arises to use another lane. Drivers in the right lane can basically shrug off the “lane ends merge right” sign, because it doesn’t affect them. You’re already where you belong, you’re not passing anybody, you don’t have to signal, you don’t have to check your blind spot (couldn’t hurt though), you don’t have to merge, and you don’t have to do any special maneuvering to account for traffic or changes in the roadway.
Unless you’re in a state like Minnesota, that is. God bless MnDOT, who tells everyone to stay in their lane until the ending lane comes to its end. This condenses the traffic jam as far forward as possible, reducing its overall length and its affect on exits and intersections further back. At the merge point, both lanes of traffic must cooperate, taking turns as everyone lets ONE vehicle from the other lane in front of them into the remaining forward lane. Just one; no more, no less. This simple technique eliminates hesitation, confusion, and even helps calm road rage. All hail the wonder of the zipper merge.
But if you’re in a state that does not enforce zipper merging, you are on your own, particularly if you find yourself in the left lane. Zipper merging still remains a superior method for managing traffic, but it only works if everyone cooperates, and you can’t expect everyone to cooperate in regards to something that isn’t common knowledge, encouraged or required by law. No, the chief law in effect here is right-of-way, and that ROW belongs to those already in The Lane That Does Not End.
This ROW works great for those who heeded the warning signs and placed themselves in the proper lane ahead of time. But it’s disadvantageous for anyone still in the left lane, who have no legal option but to yield until the right lane clears, whether by a natural decrease in approaching traffic, or by someone in the right lane stopping traffic just to let them in.
And who knows how long that could take. Sure, some left-lane drivers may know about the signs, and are indeed selfishly trying to rush ahead of as many cars as possible instead of waiting their “turn” behind those who were here first. But in heavy traffic, it’s just as easy for drivers who had legitimate reasons for being in the left lane in the first place to get stuck there. Rather than trying to jump the line, perhaps they’re just trying to avoid holding up traffic behind them while there’s still some open road ahead.
At the pinch point, things can get awkward fast. Legally speaking, cars in the left lane NEED to move over, but thanks to right-of-way, no one NEEDS to let them in. To avoid this sticky situation, most drivers will get into The Lane That Does Not End as early as they can.
Ah, but that leaves space! Space in the left lane! Glorious open road! A brief chance to escape from all this stop-and-go nonsense! Who can resist the chance to jump out and surge forward a few more car lengths? It is, after all, legal roadway usage, isn’t it?
But it’s risky. Passing all those cars might just inspire them to tighten up and make absolutely sure that you don’t cut in front of them. Or someone might even see you coming and take it upon himself to block you from passing any more cars.
Our sense of fairness, our sense of timely preparation, our sense of efficiency, and traffic law all clash in this messy situation.
It’s a real pickle. Once you claim a spot of your own in The Lane That Does Not End, you kinda want to keep it. You’ve secured your place in line, and as slow as traffic is, you don’t want more cars in front of you to slow things down even worse than they are now. Besides, you’ve got the right-of-way, you’re under no obligation to let someone in, and you don’t have to stress and wonder when someone will have mercy on you and let you in. But seeing open room in the left lane is oh so tempting. Whatever the reason for that lane’s current emptiness, you could use it to get several car-lengths ahead of where you are now (minus however many cars decline to let you in front of them, of course. Yeah, I wouldn’t want to let me in, either.).
Technically, as you approach the bottleneck, neither lane option is illegal here. You could take the right lane early, but you’ll forego the opportunity to pass a few more cars. You could stay in the left lane a little longer, but you may be sacrificing slow speed for a complete stop as you wait for the chance to get back in. You might even find yourself merging back into the very same spot you jumped out of, having made no progress at all. After all, they do have the right-of-way, and could make you wait, stopped in the left lane, as long as they wanted to.
What’s your preferred technique for navigating these lane drops? Without a zipper merge to dictate lane choice and merging habits, how do you approach the bottleneck? When do you leave the left lane for the relative security of The Lane That Does Not End? And most importantly, how to you negotiate with other traffic?
(Of course, “merge left”-type lane drops take this to a whole ’nother level... But maybe we should save that for its own separate discussion.)