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On the Merge of a Nervous Breakdown

(Posted by guest blogger Steve Hendrix) Since we only have a half-day today (they are changing the oil on the blog machine between noon Tuesday and noon Wednesday), let's tackle the following Hypothetical Driving Ethics Situation That Happens All The Time. What would you do?

The situation: The stretch of the Inner Loop in Montgomery County where 1-270 meets the Beltway is pretty-much permanently jammed. Normal there is defined as bumper-to-bumper traffic moving at 45 miles-per-hour or slower. But at the far left is a lane that is almost always empty. It's a merge lane bringing cars onto the Beltway from Wisconsin Avenue, and it's very long, almost half a mile. Well, half a mile of empty is too much for many drivers (the ones who want to be fighter pilots, mainly) and they pour into that merge lane and floor it. Sometimes they veer across two or three lanes to get there, all to leapfrog a dozen or so cars before the lane disappears and they have to merge back.

Important fact: There is a solid white line between the merge lane and the rest of the Beltway. And we know what a solid line means in traffic law don't we drivers? That's right. It means DO NOT CROSS.

I don't like this behavior. I think it's pushy, potentially dangerous and against the solid white line law. I have been known to quietly remonstrate with my fellow drivers when they careen crazily in front of me to do this, just to gain a few seconds of advantage over the rest of us.

Surprise twist: I was recently a passenger with two male friends on this same stretch of the Beltway when we observed exactly this behavior from other cars. When I expressed my disapproval, one of my friends, a generous and gentle soul in non-driving life, said: "Oh, I always do that." Well, it's always disquieting to come face-to-face with the devil and I was still reeling when my OTHER friend, who is a transportation professional with experience in traffic management, agreed! "From a flow perspective," he said, "It's a good idea to maximize all the available space in all the available lanes."

Surprise backward twist: "But what about the solid line law," I beseeched my traffic pro friend. He looked again and confirmed that it was solid. "You're right," he said. "That changes things. That is meant to keep cars in place to reduce the risk of collision at a particularly busy merge. You shouldn't enter that lane."

To which my Satanic friend said, "Pshaw."

So who is right?

By Steve Hendrix |  August 5, 2008; 8:41 AM ET
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It makes it quicker for the people who do it, but after they cut back into the left lane, everyone else slows down. I truly hate these people.

Posted by: Maggie | August 5, 2008 9:05 AM

No splash. No sizzle.

Posted by: Bah-humbug | August 5, 2008 9:16 AM

It's ok when you are having a baby or late for a haircut...but you have to earn some existential credits by not doing it other times. If you could get out of your car and read the fine print on the white line you'd see that's what it says.

Posted by: Amanda | August 5, 2008 9:30 AM

I am jumping in from vacation to take the side of the sidezoomers, as Cynthia Gorney called them in a New York Times Magazine piece on exactly the topic Steve raises this morning. Gorney, like Hendrix, is violently opposed to this supposed usurpation of one's proper and polite place in the queue. But the traffic engineers she interviewed say that if you look at these situations focused mainly on the most efficient use of lane space, you want the sidezoomers to fill up that space. And then you want the folks in the main lanes to yield gracefully to these drivers whom they hate. It's a very tough social dilemma, but I come down on the side of the sidezoomers, even if I do despise them when they zip by me. They are correctly protesting against the fact that most of us are fearful sheep.
I do some occasional sidezooming, though often I refrain, mainly for fear that my fellow drivers will include a few homicidal maniacs.
I'd like to hear from sidezoomers about whether they do this because they believe it is more efficient or just because they want to beat everyone else.

Posted by: Fisher | August 5, 2008 9:42 AM

If this is OK, why doesn't everybody just drive on the shoulder? The only thing stopping you is one of those solid white lines. As your friend put it: "It's a good idea to maximize all the available space in all the available lanes."

And while we are at it, lets cut through parking lots and gas stations to get around traffic lights.

And the airport runways are not busy ALL the time. We can cut through there too and save a few seconds.

And if we ignore the speed limits, especially in those pesky school zones, we can gain another 73 seconds of our lives back every day.

Or, we can be REALLY radical, and start thinking that it "really isn't all about us" and other people have rights too.

Then again, we are discussing the metro DC area, so ... never mind. Drive however you want.

Posted by: SoMD | August 5, 2008 10:12 AM

A solid single line means that crossing it is discouraged, but not prohibited. A solid double line means that crossing is prohibited. See

Posted by: JJ | August 5, 2008 10:13 AM

discouraged, prohibited, either way, I vote no on crossing solid lines.
Tangent: how about the people coming down the lane from Wisconsin Ave. I say that should fill all spae in the merge lane (i.e., drive all the way to the end of it) beofre merging. I wish people would not stop at the bottom of a ramp just to merge with stopped traffic. It causes unnecessary back-ups on the from from which they came.

Posted by: mit | August 5, 2008 10:42 AM

Actually mit, the "zipper merge" is the safest and most effective way to merge. As long as everybody alternates, using all of the merge lane works great. It only takes one jerk who is a legend in their own mind to mess it up tho.

Posted by: SoMD | August 5, 2008 11:02 AM

You might as well run all the way to the end of the merge since you gain nothing by merging early; people always pass you and go all the way to the end. If it's a merge lane I don't see any problems with where people come from to get there.

I thought it was yellow solid lines that were prohibitive.

An SoMD he said "all available lanes" so the shoulder is still out, you can rest easy.

Posted by: Stick | August 5, 2008 11:05 AM

Since I thought I was perhaps the only soul left who knew the meaning of the solid white line (who doesn't work for DMV/DOT), I applaud your knowledge. And I think your friend who thinks it is ok to use merge lane for people to get on the freeway as a way to get in front of a dozen cars or so should be pushed out into traffic traveling at a high rate of speed.

Not that people understand the merge lane concept even when you are in it for a legitimate purpose...

Posted by: BobT | August 5, 2008 11:12 AM

Wish I could Stick, but if you have the unfortunate opportunity to approach the WW Bridge on the inner loop at around 6:00 AM you will see numerous people who feel the shoulder IS a lane.

Posted by: SoMD | August 5, 2008 11:45 AM

Testing comments ...

Posted by: Bob Greiner | August 6, 2008 6:59 AM

Wow, you've found a topic guaranteed to create more argument than guns - in DC at least.

I drive this piece every day - down 270 to the beltway east. It's easy. Stay left until the squiggle sign (about 1/3 mile before merge ends) - then start moving right to get out of the way of merging mess 1/3 mile ahead. I almost always end up ahead of the folks who zoom by me on the left - the far right lane (once the wis ave merge is done) is almost always fastest.

of course I only save the proverbial 73 seconds.

Posted by: Gary | August 8, 2008 5:02 PM

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