Are you an early merger? You're doing it wrong

Posted at 11:34 AM, May 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-24 13:52:55-04

Jennifer from Westminster writes, “People need to learn how to merge! Traffic would not be nearly as bad if people were not always in such a hurry to cut you off just to get one car ahead! Don't even get me started on the ones that get into lanes they know end just to speed past everyone & jump ahead...”        

George from Castle Pines writes, “Right lane closed ahead. Everyone tries to get over, backing up left lanes. Important people stay in right lane all the way to the closure. Road rage ensues. Fingers and horns.”

Beth from Brighton writes, “Why don't people understand the "Zipper Merge"? Usually EVERYONE gets into one lane and the lane that ends is usually empty, or there is one person playing "traffic cop" and not letting anyone get into the merging lane.  This causes a lot of road rage. I have witnessed it personally.  Someone is going to get hurt.”

I get tons and tons of comments like these to my Driving You Crazy inbox regarding late merging. They say how rude drivers are who do it, why can’t everyone be more polite and late mergers cause my road rage. I’m sure I will get 1,000 emails about this story just because drivers are so passionate about this issue.

What kind of a merger are you? Do you get over early or do you drive on up to the merge point and then try to squeeze your way in?

If you are an early merger, you are doing it wrong. I bet you just cursed my name right then. I know it is infuriating to watch some other driver fly by you, zipping past all the folks waiting patiently to get past the choke point only to watch as that driver at the last minute ducks into a tiny opening ahead of you. And you are left there sitting in that endlessly long line of traffic because you thought it was more polite to merge early. Well, I have three words for all you early mergers, the zipper effect.

The video attached to this story is a perfect example. Especially the part where the driver with the dash cam, who is originally from California, is trying to get over. The driver to his left is blaring the horn and blocking him out. So dash cam guy roils down his window and asks the other driver, “Do you know what a zipper merge is?” The other driver says, “Yea, but we’re in Colorado man.”

A zipper merge works when motorists use both lanes of traffic all the way to a defined merge area, and then alternate in "zipper" fashion into the open lane. By doing it this way, both lanes are used right up until the end of the closed lane, which is a much more efficient use of the road.

The problem with this zipper merge is that all the drivers in traffic need to know how it works and most importantly be willing to do it. This is the most important part of this idea, EVERYONE must be willing to do it. I cannot stress that enough. If some drivers don’t understand how it works or allow for it to work, it won’t work.

Some departments of transportation, including CDOT, have tried to educate people by posting signs and message boards that tell drivers to go all the way to the merge point and then get over. CDOT called their program "merge late." They made a big push several years ago at several construction zones, but have backed off the program in recent years.

One place they have been aggressively implementing an education program and signs is in Minnesota. They provided the animated part of the video attached to this story. The Minnesota DOT says their efforts have helped speed traffic up by 35 percent.

According to Ken Johnson, a Minnesota State Work Zone, Pavement Marking, and Traffic Devices engineer, he says when everyone does the zipper it correctly, “I’ve been amazed at how consistent the flow is. You don’t have to put your foot on the brake at all. You just coast ahead and take turns at the merge point." Other states are trying the aggressive education technique as well.  

But what has to happen for the zipper to be successful is everyone must do it, and most importantly, believe in it. The biggest obstacles remain driver confusion, oblivious commuters and vigilante car justice. Just like all the teeth on your jacket. If one tooth is out of alignment, then your jacket stays open and you get cold.

I would love for all drivers to know how to use the zipper merge. My gut feeling though is that it will never be widely used. The only way for the zipper to have any chance of success is a constant, heavy duty education effort by CDOT and including it in the Colorado driving handbook. It seems that most driving schools don't teach drivers how to do it, leaving this kind of merge lesson up to the grace of your fellow, angry commuters.

So if you see me out and about driving up to the merge point don’t yell at me, come join me in doing the zipper. 

7NEWS traffic reporter Jayson Luber says he has been covering Denver-metro traffic since Ben-Hur was driving a chariot. (We believe the actual number is about 20 years.) He's obsessed with letting viewers know what's happening on their drive and the best way to avoid the problems that spring up. Follow him on Facebookand Twitter.