The Open Road Archives (99-05-26)

Drive to Beat the Traffic Jam

When you're stuck in traffic, it gets hard to think clearly. You know you're losing time, and you get frustrated. If only this traffic jam would clear! Some people get so frustrated that they decide that the traffic laws don't apply to them; after all they're in a rush, while everybody else on the road is just there to get in their way. They start lane changing, and, in extreme cases, driving on the shoulder -- all in the name of getting there faster.

Have you ever watched one of these people? If you get stuck in traffic much, you will get the opportunity. In general, these seem to be the same people who rush right up behind a large truck before slamming on the brakes to avoid it. They don't seem to be thinking of the big picture, and they certainly aren't considering the fact that everybody else is just as frustrated.

But what if there were a legal way, even a courteous way, that you could beat the traffic jam, and actually get there a little faster? The good news is that there is! And it doesn't require that everybody do it, though it will work better the more people who do.

What causes traffic jams? The simple answer is that the road gets full. Basically this means that there are enough cars on the road that you always have to check everywhere before doing anything. More of your concentration is required to drive, so you drive a little slower. When everybody starts to do that, then you get slower traffic, less manouevring room, and people starting to wonder how to beat the traffic. When that happens, some of the people decide to change lanes to try to catch the fastest lane. That's where the problem starts.

Remember, I said that you get a traffic jam once the road is already full enough that cars can't easily manouevre. But when somebody changes lanes, they make the problem worse! While they are changing lanes, neither lane can go faster than them, so, at best, they slow the faster lane to the speed of the slower. Even worse, while they are changing lanes, they are occupying both lanes. That means that on a crowded road they start to take the space of two cars. Clearly the more lane changing that goes on, the more crowded the road will seem to be, and the worse the traffic jam will become.

Need some proof? The next time that you are driving on your favourite highway, watch the other drivers. When the traffic is flowing well, you will see very few lane changes. You will also see that the traffic in each lane flows smoothly. Even under light traffic, though, watch for lane changers. You will see that when somebody changes lanes, they affect both the lane they are leaving, which typically has to slow briefly while they leave, and the lane they are entering, which also has to slow until they get up to speed. Good drivers leave plenty of space when lane changing so that they have time to match the speed of the other lane without affecting them.

Now try watching the situation when you get a traffic jam! You know that each lane will get through quickest if they simply drive, with nobody entering or leaving the lane. But it doesn't happen! Once the traffic slows to a jam, it seems that everybody has to start second guessing the traffic. Maybe the right lane will move faster; no, wait, maybe the left lane is the best. Might they be right? Well, sometimes they will be, but on the average they do no better than simply sitting in one lane.

In fact they tend to do worse because they jump lanes, causing their new lane to stall, and letting the old lane slip forward. If you are stuck in a traffic jam, it seems one of the best things that can happen to you is if everybody ahead decides to leave your lane. If there's no accident or anything, they are just clearing the road for you.

So, how can you beat the traffic jam? The easiest way is to take a deep breath, relax, and stay in your lane, driving at the speed of traffic. You don't need to tailgate the driver ahead, since that can't make him go any faster.

If you get frustrated, try watching the other cars around you. Remember, they are stuck in the traffic jam too! You are not alone. Watch the ones who keep changing lanes; you will probably see them vanishing behind you. Stay calm, and remember the objective is to arrive as quickly as possible, not to beat everybody else. Until the traffic jam clears, nobody is getting there.

If you drive the same route frequently, maybe you could try timing your drive. You can keep a list of the time it takes you when there's no traffic (or little traffic) and the time it takes you when there's a traffic jam.

I used to drive the same route a lot, and at first got extremely frustrated when there was a traffic jam. Some co-workers and I would often swap war stories about the traffic when we arrived at work, and on a bad day, we could spend half an hour before we had calmed enough to start working. Then I started measuring how long it actually took me to get there. I found that my route took about 25 minutes when there was no traffic, and about 30 to 35 minutes when there was a traffic jam, even a fairly bad one. Considering how long it took me to calm down afterwards, I decided that ten minutes was not really worth getting upset about.

Relax, stay in your lane. You will get there as fast as everybody else, and you will get there a lot more refreshed. In fact, you may find that you actually get there faster than everyone else. That's how you can beat a traffic jam.

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