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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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How to Safely Zip Through Construction Zones

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Let’s assume you are driving along a two-lane highway and see construction barrels and signs indicating your lane is closed ahead. It is rush hour traffic or at least there are many motorists on the road at the time, thus reducing traffic flow dramatically. What do you do?

  1. Turn on your signal and merge into the open lane as soon as safely possible?
  2. Speed up to the point of closure, bypassing cars lining up in the open lane?

If you answered A, you may think it is proper etiquette and fair to other motorists. You may think that drivers who cut in at the last minute are not only “jerks”, but the cause of sudden stopping and lane changes, which cause collisions. Not so fast! While it may be hard to believe, whether you answered A or B, you are part of the traffic problem.

Then, what should you do? Studies by the Texas Transportation Institute, Minnesota Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration have shown that the zipper merge (so named because both lanes are used and drivers take turns merging one car at a time, like the teeth of a zipper) improves traffic flow by as much as 15 percent.

The idea behind the zipper merge is to keep traffic flowing. When traffic is heavy and slow, it has been proven to be much safer and more effective for motorists to remain in their current lane until the point where traffic can orderly take turns merging. Watch this brief video on how it works.

The studies have shown that zipper merge leads to less confusion for drivers in either lane – the merge point is fixed and clear. They also showed that zipper merge reduces the total length of a backup in construction zones by as much as 40 percent, reduces the risk of accidents and eases driver angst. According to MnDOT, by creating two full lanes of traffic, the speed difference between the lanes is reduced. When everyone is equally “disadvantaged,” incidents of road rage and other bad behavior — like playing “lane cop” and driving in the center to prevent passing — are fewer.

The zipper’s catch, however, is that every driver needs to be aware of this style of merging, know how it works and most importantly be willing to do it. If there was a way to make sure drivers would adequately and courteously follow the rules of taking turns, the zipper merge could prevent many rage, confusion, and construction merging accidents.

If drivers don’t understand how it works or allow for it to work, it won’t work. Compounding the problem is a lack of consistency among states. Minnesota started promoting the zipper merge idea in 2011; Washington followed in 2014. Missouri started promoting the technique earlier this year ahead of a heavy summer construction season. Kansas followed with a pilot project that started last week using electronic signs to warn drivers of an upcoming merge and encourage them to use both lanes. Others states, like California encourages early merging by posting signs at a half-mile, 1,500 feet, 1,000 feet and at the merge point letting the driver know a construction zone is ahead and which lane is ending.

Have you experienced a zipper merge? What is your position? Zipper merge or not, we must all stay alert, pay attention to signs, be courteous to other drivers and exercise caution when changing lanes.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.