Left lanes don’t line up with drivers’ desires

Robert Thomson
Columnist September 14, 2012

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Exiting a highway from the left-most lane is, in my opinion, a very poor option for highway planners.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

My own experience is to move to the left as soon as I see the sign for a upcoming left exit. I use my directional to signal a left exit intention, but that just does not seem to matter to those who drive their entire trip at maximum plus speed in the left lane. Signaling just does not seem to mean a thing to them. Even with my left signal flashing to show my intent, these left-lane thugs resort to incessant flashing of lights for me to get out of their way.

I have tried entering the left lane later in the process but found that my only option is to bull my way into the lane, because left-lane squatters simply will not allow me any room to enter the lane. I also have a good deal of sympathy for those who signal and then move very quickly into the desired lane. I have seen, way too often, people speed up when they see a person in need of a lane change.

— Bob Perrino, Arlington

Perrino isn’t talking about going below the speed limit in the left lane. A driver who moves into the left lane on a highway to use a left exit is not impeding the flow of traffic and has every right to be there.

By contrast, there’s no law that authorizes motorists to speed in any lane.

In the D.C. area, we have many left-side entrances and exits on our highways. Too many. I agree with Perrino that they’re a poor option, for safety reasons, but sometimes planners are constrained by costs and the amount of space that would have to be consumed in putting all ramps on the right side.

One step in the right direction occurred last week when the new ramps opened to lead drivers from the eastbound Dulles Airport Access Highway directly to the inner and outer loops of the Capital Beltway.

Drivers coming from the airport no longer need to look over their right shoulders while crossing lane after lane of the Dulles Toll Road to reach Beltway ramps. (They still need to use a lot of caution in this area, since the new ramps create new merges with the toll road drivers heading for the Beltway.)

But as one left-side merging issue dissipates, others will be created. This fall, the opening of the 495 Express Lanes down the middle of the Beltway will create some new left lane issues. The one travelers focus on the most is the new merge point north of the Dulles highway where traffic leaving the express lanes must move from the left into the regular lanes on the inner loop.

It’s not that the overall traffic volume will be greater, at least not initially. My concern is that drivers will have yet another spot where they need to look over their right shoulders and worry about fast-moving traffic in the left lane of a highway.

Rage reduction

This next letter writer has some advice on how to cope with those highway challenges.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

As an expatriate New Yorker, I have some experience with road rage and discourtesy. After some encounters with unsafe drivers and discourteous motorists, I decided that the safest thing for me to do would be to let them go ahead, whether it was to pass me or make a turn into my lane or whatever.

My reasoning is, if I can keep some driver from becoming angry, then that driver will act more responsibly.

Consequently, I am safer on the road because I don’t have to share the road with someone so infuriated that they can’t keep their mind on the traffic situation around them.

— Milan Valuch, the District

Valuch picks up on an important theme expressed by many traffic-safety experts: By keeping yourself calm, you may help calm other drivers. These are among the “simple rules to reduce road rage” in the Maryland driver’s manual: Let other drivers merge into traffic in an orderly fashion. Do not block the passing lane. Obey posted speed limits.

There’s a colder logic to courtesy: The traffic engineers also say that the best way to ease congestion around merges is to maintain a safe distance from other vehicles, even to the point of opening up some space for other drivers to move into your lane.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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