Our View: This year — please, Minnesotans — do the zipper merge
From the editorial: "Zipper merging is about safety — as long as we all embrace it and we’re all on board with doing it. Let’s start this summer."
It goes against everything in us that’s courteous and Minnesota nice. It betrays our years of silently cursing jerks who use the lane that’s closing to zoom around us before “road work ahead.”
But those jerks leaving behind the rest of us waiting patiently in line — just like we were taught in kindergarten — have actually been the ones approaching construction zones correctly all along.
For years, even before a Twin Cities columnist in 2010 announced that it “threatens our way of life,” the Minnesota Department of Transportation and other traffic-safety experts have been urging us to zipper merge ahead of construction, meaning using both lanes until reaching the defined merge point, and then taking turns there, rather than following our sense of politeness by piling into the lane staying open at the first literal sign of a lane closure ahead.
This spring, in advance of a busy road-work season, MnDOT is renewing its promotion of the zipper merge. It even has a video at its website to show us how to properly pull it off.
“Remember that it’s OK to use both lanes leading up to a lane closure in a zipper merge,” MnDOT District 1 Traffic Engineer Jim Miles said this week in a statement exclusive to the News Tribune Opinion page. “By using both lanes and being courteous at the merge point, we can reduce the length of the backup and minimize driver frustration entering the work zone.”
Moving early into the lane staying open can create a hazard, according to MnDOT. Motorists who do this tend to slow quickly and unexpectedly, which can lead to dangerous lane switching, road rage, and even crashes.
“Research shows that these dangers decrease when motorists use both lanes until reaching the defined merge area and then alternate in ‘zipper’ fashion into the open lane,” according to MnDOT.
Using a zipper merge is simply the safer option because it reduces speed differences between the two lanes, reduces the overall length of traffic backup by as much as 40% (according to MnDOT research), reduces traffic congestion, and “creates a sense of fairness and equity that all lanes are moving at the same rate,” MnDOT said.
So, yes, go ahead, wait to merge. Merge late, even at the last possible moment and even if all other motorists are immediately following what they feel are the directions.
In other words, “Stay in your current lane up to the point of merge,” as MnDOT urges. “Then take turns with other drivers to safely and smoothly ease into the remaining lane. Don't worry about being ‘Minnesota nice.’ When traffic is heavy and slow, it is much safer for motorists to remain in their current lane until the point where traffic can orderly take turns merging.”
After a decade and a half or so, even the most decent of Minnesotans, you’d think, would have caught on to and embraced this zipper merging. Alas, though, changing habits takes time, so annual springtime reminders like this one remain necessary.
That Twin Cities columnist, Joe Soucheray of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, was convinced we’d never get it.
“To tell you the truth, I don't think we can do it,” he wrote in a column republished by the News Tribune. “I don't think we can figure out the ‘zipper.’ We can't even figure out whose turn it is at a four-way stop. You go ahead, no you, no you. Why, I have seen four cars go at the same time at a four-way stop, only to meet in the middle of the intersection like embarrassed square dancers who blew the call. And we laugh it off when a more normal reaction would be to wonder why we don't all go and seek psychiatric counseling.”
Satire aside, no matter how true it may ring, zipper merging is about safety — as long as we all embrace it and we’re all on board with doing it. Let’s start this summer. Orange road-work cones are already going up.