Fried Light: A guide to merging

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By Roger Snodgrass

You may be relieved to learn that help is on the way in the war between sidezoomers and lineuppers. If you’re a zipper, like me, you’ll be especially pleased.

How many times have we approached a patch of construction or a temporary diversion on the highway, where two or more lanes of traffic are required to funnel down into one?

This can be a daily occurrence or an ephemeral surprise. It is one of the conditions of our radical independence and individuality.

Those who lived through the Santa Fe-Pojoaque highway construction project a few years back will know what I’m talking about. We used to have the same problem regularly during the morning rush at the NM4 “Y,” at the bottom of the hill, but that was before public transportation and layoffs eased the bottleneck.

Just the memory of the warning merge sign, long before the orange barrels forced a move, raises my blood pressure. That’s where I began to slow conscientiously, like an honorable member of civilization and join the long line of suckers already in the right lane at the earliest opportunity.

Lineuppers are nice, decent, good Americans, who were properly taught in first grade to get in line and not cheat.

So how long did it take before the first sidezoomer whisked by, heedless, ethically vacant, a menace to humankind?

Not very long. If there is a chance to advance, it seems there is an opportunity that no sidezoomer can resist. Selfish initiative trumps thoughtful politeness.

The meek may inherit the earth, but the vicious will get to work first.

I admit that on occasion I practiced lineupper interception and intimidation on sidezoomers. Watching for their attempts to breach the line, I swerved out or feinted a blocking movement to make them think twice about the potential consequences of their aggression.

But hold on a second. Before turning this into a political metaphor that accounts for everything from the loss of the middle class to the Iraq debacle consider some new thinking on the subject.

I’m grateful to Cynthia Gorney, a journalism teacher at the University of California Berkeley, for introducing me and now perhaps you, too, to some new thinking on the subject.

In an article in the New York Times Magazine earlier this month, Gorney confessed her own deep anxieties about the lineupper-sidezoomer quandary, which has driven her into deep research and also introduced her to Tom Vanderbilt, a journalist who has written a book, “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us).”

Both Gormley and Vanderbilt were naturally of the lineupper persuasion. (Vanderbilt gives each camp a bumper sticker identity – the early mergers are identified as those who “practice random acts of kindness,” and the minority are the ones who “live free or die.”)

Both have now come to understand, if reluctantly, why the problem can’t altogether be blamed on rude behavior, because what the eager-beaver zoomers see is a lot of unused real estate stretching out before them that somebody is going to exploit, so it might as well be them.

In a better world, drivers practice a perfect “zipper merge.” People approaching a merge simply stay in the lane they’re in, leaving ample merging space in front of them, until they reach a “clearly marked” or agreed upon merge point.

There is slowing, but not stopping and starting, and the two lanes, taking turns, become one.

Well, it is a bit of a metaphor after all. The zoomers don’t get all the advantage and the socially conscious don’t get over-penalized.

And we all get there in more or less than same order as when we arrived.

I’ll buy it.