Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Merging Like the Ants (Safely)

I spoke with Cynthia Gorney of the New York Times a few days ago, and we had a great conversation about how and why we behave as we do on the roads - a definite sync with traffic safety culture. Her story, accessible here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/03/magazine/03traffic-t.html?ref=automobiles, is an entertaining look at the thinking and behavior deployed by two schools of drivers where there's a merge required. She has designated these two groups the "lineuppers" and "sidezoomers," and it should be pretty apparent what these two groups do when a merge is required. Traffic engineers joined the conversation and explained, not surprisingly, that if everyone gets along and does what's best for the common good, traffic will flow more smoothly and merge more safely. By the way, did you know that Julius Caesar had traffic laws to manage chariot jams? Or that ants don't get into traffic jams?

We've all been in the situation where road construction closes a lane and we need to merge down from four or three lanes to three or two. Some of us take what we might believe is the higher moral ground, and stay patiently in line; others are the sidezoomers who drive right up to the end of the lane, and merge in at the 'head of the line.' At the Foundation, we're always interested in how behavior impacts safety, and how we can change behaviors to increase safety for all road users. Most of the public doesn't appreciate the traffic engineers' strategy for moving us through a merge, where everyone gives up a little for the common good. So, when a lineupper is waiting, and a sidezoomer is moving ahead, instead we see disgruntlement developing. Sometimes, this turns into full blown rage that results in hand gestures, horn blowing, or worse.

Take a minute to read Ms. Gorney's story. If everyone had a better appreciation for how to improve traffic flow, and took a few deep breaths, it could be a step forward in making roads safer for all road users.

And, for more information about what we're doing to change traffic safety culture, please visit http://www.aaafoundation.org/pdf/2008TSCIndexRelease.pdf.

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