Our view: Don't be quick to judge who "the jerk" is on highway
Late for a meeting in West Duluth, Shane Bauer hopped onto Interstate 35 at Lake Avenue. His small children buckled securely in the backseat behind him, he considered the construction ahead and how the freeway was about to bottleneck from two lan...
Late for a meeting in West Duluth, Shane Bauer hopped onto Interstate 35 at Lake Avenue. His small children buckled securely in the backseat behind him, he considered the construction ahead and how the freeway was about to bottleneck from two lanes into one.
"Use both lanes," instructed a white roadside sign with black lettering.
"Take turns at merge," directed another sign, this one of can't-miss blaze orange.
Bauer obeyed the signs. He zipped along in the left lane, the lane that was to close. Without even a hint of guilt -- he was following directions -- he quickly motored past a long line of cars inching along in the right lane, the lane remaining open.
That's right. Bauer is one of them.
Oh, he may also be a faithful husband, doting father, talented graphic designer and small-business owner, and his shop in Fitger's may be the one that's selling those T-shirts emblazoned with positive messages like "live in harmony" and "peaceful inside and out," but put him behind the wheel of a minivan in a construction zone, and he's one of them.
He's one of those idiots, those jerks, those call-'em-what-we-do drivers who seem to have no consideration for us other motorists, who fly by and then cut in at the front of the line -- who rudely cut in ahead of us.
However, when it comes to merging at the point where two lanes narrow to one because of construction, Bauer and all those other "jerks" and "idiots" are actually the ones who are doing it correctly. The good manners of the rest of us are just fueling gridlock.
"The Minnesota Nice in everybody causes us to be compliant and to get into one lane because that's the lane we're eventually supposed to be in," John Bray, a Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman for Northeastern Minnesota, said in an interview with the News Tribune Opinion page. "But really, when you have two lanes for travel, the best thing to do is to utilize them both. And then, when you get to a point where you have to merge into one lane, take turns.
"That works perfectly if everybody uses proper courtesy," Bray said. "It is a courtesy merge."
Or a "late merge," as MnDOT sometimes also refers to vehicles taking turns at a merge point, just as they're supposed to.
Kent Barnard, spokesman for MnDOT's metro district, came up with an even catchier name for the turn-taking approach that helps keep traffic moving through construction zones. In an interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, he referred to it as the "zipper," because the vehicles resemble the teeth of a zipper as they form one line.
The "zipper" can speed traffic by 20 percent and shorten traffic back-ups by 35 percent, the Pioneer Press reported, citing "various studies."
So why do Minnesotans insist on waiting in one long line instead, especially with an entire lane open just a few feet away?
"To drivers, it's not just a traffic jam -- it's social interaction," Pioneer Press reporter Bob Shaw wrote. "When one driver passes another, it triggers a cascade of emotions slathered in psychology, self-worth, social expectations and ideas of what it means to be Minnesotan. Passive-aggressive drivers waiting in line see themselves as virtuous and polite. When they are passed, they feel inferior or stupid. That's when Minnesota Nice becomes Minnesota Knife-in-Your-Back."
Just ask Bauer about that. For one life-reflecting moment as he headed west on I-35, Bauer thought maybe he wouldn't make it at all to his meeting in West Duluth. That moment came when a motorist from the slow-moving, long line of cars to Bauer's right suddenly veered out in front of him. The motorist just as quickly veered back into his own lane, avoiding a collision. The move had been a warning, and not a very polite one.
"You have got to be kidding me," Bauer exclaimed, catching his breath, regaining control of his vehicle and flashing a quick glance to make sure his precious cargo in the back was all right.
"When I got up next to him and saw his face I could see he was all angry," Bauer said later in an interview. "But the signs were up to use both lanes. That's all that I was doing. What kind of person fake-swerves at someone?"
The same kind of person who doesn't understand the traffic-improving logic and, yes, the joy that is the "zipper," a construction-zone merging strategy that deserves to catch on.