What if we all let each other merge?

John Kelly
Columnist June 10, 2013

As I was stuck in traffic the other day, I pondered the tao of merging.

Tao is a Chinese concept that means the “way” or the “route,” and so it seemed a perfect metaphor for that moment we experience frequently when driving a car: deciding whom to let in front of us.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

If you drive, merging will eventually become an issue. There are places where two lanes become one, places where parked vehicles suddenly eliminate the right lane, places where roadwork or fender benders steal a lane, places where highway offramps merge into surface roads (or vice versa), places where HOV lanes dump us into regular lanes, intersections where neighborhood streets T-end into commuter routes . . .

In each of these situations, we find ourselves either the merger or the mergee: either the driver who wants to be let in or the driver who does the letting in. Or, as often happens, doesn’t.

If, as Clausewitz wrote, war is the continuation of politics by other means, then merging is the continuation of our personalities by other means. Some drivers think letting someone in is a sign of weakness akin to Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler.

I wonder if some of the Washington area’s traffic aggravation wouldn’t be lessened if people just merged better.

I’m not putting all of this on the mergees. Yes, there are spiteful drivers who speed up when they think someone is trying to get in front of them. But there are also mergers who fail to exercise the most basic form of driver etiquette: using their turn signal.

Thus the first of my merging rules: If I’m in one of those situations where traffic is inching along because your lane is going away, I’m more likely to let you in if you have your turn signal on.

If you don’t, there’s a good chance you’ll have to depend on another kind-hearted driver.

If you’re driving the same model of car as I, I’m more likely to let you in. Really, shouldn’t we Kia Soul/AMC Gremlin/Bugatti Veyron owners stick together?

If someone lets me in, I feel it’s my duty to let someone else in. Pay it forward, right?

Not everyone feels this way. Every morning not far from my house, traffic creeps along Georgia Avenue. Two parallel neighborhood streets about 60 yards apart intersect it. Between them is a gas station. Everyone is trying to merge onto Georgia. I can’t tell you how often I see drivers who have been graciously allowed into the big flow of traffic suddenly stick to the bumper of the vehicle ahead of them, lest someone else try to slip in from the gas station or the next street. Have they become self-hating mergers?

A few months ago I visited Southern California and was amazed at how merge-friendly it was. The freeways around L.A. were packed with traffic traveling at frighteningly high speeds, but every time someone wanted to join the flow or change lanes, other drivers made space. If I may mix metaphors, it was as if they recognized we were all in the same boat.

And so we are. I wonder what would happen if everyone in Washington let everyone else in. Maybe we could do an experiment: What if on just one day — this Wednesday, say — every time you saw a driver who obviously wanted to join your lane, you let him or her in?

It might not make our traffic woes disappear, but it could reduce the aggravation level. As Confucius said: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

He also said: “Dude, please, use your turn signal.”

Send a Kid to Camp

It’s the time of year when children show an inordinate interest in the calendar. It’s not so much that they’re fascinated by the transition from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. It’s that they can’t wait to get out of school. Summer is almost here.

For many kids, that will mean getting ready to go to summer camp. For others, though, it will mean trading the educational stimulation of the classroom for something closer to inertia. Thankfully, there is Camp Moss Hollow.

Moss Hollow is a camp in Fauquier County that readers of The Washington Post have supported for more than 30 years, allowing underprivileged kids to spend a week or two in the woods.

You can make a tax-deductible donation by going to washingtonpost.com/camp and clicking where it says “Give Now.” Or send a check, made payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Send a Kid to Camp, Family Matters of Greater Washington, P.O. Box 200045, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15251-0045.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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