A few simple tips can save you time and reduce frustration in heavy traffic and construction zones whether during your daily commute or a summer vacation drive.
Tempers can flare when you're trying to get home or to your destination while the sun is still shining. And while road rage is never the answer to any traffic problems, these suggestions can help you get to where you're going with less stress – and in many cases sooner.
“If you want to arrive earlier, the best thing to do is learn the traffic pattern and leave five minutes earlier," said Teresa Qu, a Michigan State University associate professor of urban and regional planning.
The experts’ latest advice:
1. Use the zipper merge
The quickest, most efficient way to merge for a construction zone probably isn’t what you think. The “zipper merge,” in which vehicles run in parallel until one lane physically narrows, is better for traffic flow than when vehicles form a single line early.
The zipper merge means each driver in non-closed lane lets a driver from the closing lane go in front of them.
Yes, that means the driver you cursed for “cheating” by passing you in the empty lane after you politely merged into the through lane a half-mile before the construction zone was helping traffic flow more than you. Sorry.
An increasing number of states encourage drivers to use the zipper merge. Some even have created flashing signs showing how and where to merge.
“It’s important to merge smoothly, not to make sudden lane changes,” Qu said.
2. Don't weave in traffic. It really doesn't help.
If you routinely jump from one lane to another to get around slower vehicles on the highway, you save less time than you think and are more likely to add to congestion or be involved in an accident.
David Hyde of Sound Qs on public radio station KUOW-FM, Seattle, recounts a commuting comparison in his city's congested traffic. The result: He arrived about a block ahead of, and way more stressed out than, the driver who stayed in a single lane.
Every lane change can triple the likelihood of an accident, according to a study that also showed that lane jumpers save less time than they think and are usually wrong when they think the next lane is going faster in heavy traffic, according to research from Donald Redelmeier of the University of Toronto and Robert Tibshirani of Stanford University.
3. Use adaptive cruise control to end phantom jams
An increasingly common driver-assistance feature can reduce or eliminate the maddening traffic slowdowns in which multiple highway traffic lanes slow, come to a nearly complete halt and then resume speed for no apparent reason.
New research from Vanderbilt University and Ford Motor shows that using adaptive cruise control can end those “phantom” traffic jams, which frequently coincide with a mild curve on a highway. The slowdowns occur when a single driver brakes and drivers behind that vehicle overcorrect, braking more and more as the slowdown spreads.
“Every time you brake in traffic, it creates more congestion with a ripple effect downstream,” Qu said.
Cars at the tail end of the phantom jam sometimes are forced to come to a complete stop even though nothing happened ahead of them.
Adaptive cruise control, which uses radar, automatic brakes and other systems to maintain a set distance from the vehicle ahead, reduces phantom jams because it applies brakes only when it has to and is less likely to overbrake than human drivers. It also helps vehicles resume speed smoothly after a slowdown.
4. Learn to drive smoothly around traffic circles
Traffic circles, or roundabouts, are becoming increasingly common, but most drivers don’t know the best way to use them.
The answer: Merge smoothly into the flow around the circle. Don’t stop unless the traffic has no gap. Traffic circles were created in Europe to reduce the number of stop signs at intersections and promote traffic flow.
Drivers already in the circle always have right of way, but you can merge into the outside lane while a car goes by in the inner lane. Some traffic circles have more than one lane.
Which one you should use depends on how far around the circle you’re going. Use your turn signal to indicate when you’re ready to leave the circle.
One of the great things about traffic circles is that you always can go around again if you miss your exit or accidentally end up in the wrong lane.
“Drive smoothly into the circle,” Qu said. “That helps you get through the intersection quickly. It’s a very efficient traffic design.”
Follow Mark Phelan on Twitter: @mark_phelan