When merging safely, apply the brakes on rogue behavior

By Robert Thomson
Thursday, October 22, 2009

Are any two merges exactly the same? Our recent discussions of how to merge safely drew responses from travelers who envision many different setups and scenarios that can cause trouble. One element seemed to unite the descriptions: picturing a high level of congestion. The driving manuals that guided us through the written test for a license don't cover many of the real-world experiences of Washington's commuters.

Here's a description of a problem many drivers encounter:

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

When the exit lane on a two- or three-lane highway backs up, impatient drivers cruise slowly or even stop in the adjacent travel lane, awaiting a chance to squeeze in between vehicles in line.

You can see this almost every morning on the George Washington Parkway, where the 14th Street bridge exit traffic backs up. Through travelers are forced to squeeze into the far left lane, causing additional backups. The U.S. Park Police occasionally patrol this exit but are down at the off-ramp, well beyond the dangerous shenanigans.

I've also seen this situation on the Interstate 395 HOV lanes at the Pentagon exit, where even Metrobuses attempt a late merge to avoid the exit-lane backup.

Chuck Werchado


DG: To give those drivers the benefit of the doubt, rush-hour traffic at some exits can back up so far onto a highway that an approaching driver might think it's a knot of slow traffic, rather than the exit line. If you do zip past the end of the line, then realize your mistake, what should you do? A driver might use the turn signal and slow down, crawling along looking for a spot to break in. Finding none, the driver might come to a stop in the travel lane.

That's very dangerous for the following drivers in the travel lane and can easily lead to a rear-end crash. A generous driver in the exit lane might try to solve that by allowing the rogue to slip in.

But let's face it, most of us aren't prepared to give that driver the benefit of the doubt. It could well be someone familiar with the congested exit who pulls this creep-up trick every day.

What should we do in that situation? Are we going to let the bad driver win?

Yep, I'd declare it make-room-for-knuckleheads day and let the driver cut in. It's not that I want to do that driver a favor. But it might help that innocent driver approaching in the through lane who is about to be forced into an emergency stop.

Yielding Rights

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

In your reply to Judy Williams [Dr. Gridlock, Oct. 11] concerning entering and exiting the Capital Beltway utilizing the entrance and exit ramps, I believe you missed a major concern.

At every on and off ramp on the Beltway, there is a prominent yield sign for those drivers entering the on ramp. I believe this yield sign means drivers entering the on ramp must yield to exiting traffic. This allows drivers exiting the Beltway to slow as they come off the Beltway and entering drivers to wait until there is enough clearance for them to enter the on ramp and accelerate to Beltway speed.

Steve Holskey


DG: While drivers in the through lanes have the right of way over the merging traffic, drivers either exiting or entering a congested highway need to watch out for each other and adjust quickly. Each needs to be studying all the traffic likely to affect their next maneuver and to be quicker to adjust than to assert their rights.

Turn It On

This is my favorite suggestion, because it's a simple observation that driving safely is a shared experience.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I'd like to add a suggestion to the ones about merging, and that is to use turn signals.

The use of signals wasn't mentioned, and although it might seem redundant to have one's signal on because it should be obvious what each driver is intending to do, I think signals have a psychological effect.

Seeing another driver's signal causes us to think about what we are doing and what the other driver is going to do. I think it makes driving and merging much safer.

Bobbie Liegus


DG: Some think the decline in turn-signal use reflects the increase in cellphone use while driving. Why lose focus on a good conversation? Others think drivers just don't see the need for signals.

But I'm with Liegus. Even when it seems obvious what the driver's intention is, a signal can draw the attention of other motorists at critical moments.

Just don't assume that turning on a light conveys the right of way to the signaling driver.

Asserting Rights

This letter came in at the end of baseball season, but it describes a year-round scenario.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

My husband and I (ages 71 and 77) and our neighbors (62 and 65) took the Metro from Vienna to the Nationals game. On our return, all the seats were filled. We remained standing until past Rosslyn.

Most of the priority seats were taken by people younger than 35 who were apparently oblivious to the fact that they were sitting in seats that, according to the placard behind them and in front of them across the aisle, were reserved for seniors and the disabled by federal law. We remained standing and had to continually fight to retain our balance.

Would it be possible for the Metro announcements to remind riders that, if they are sitting in those seats, and seniors and disabled people are standing, they should stand up and allow others to sit down?

Elizabeth Rocklin


DG: Metro does make announcements, publishes advisories and even has a YouTube video explaining the priority seats. In the spring, the transit authority enhanced the signs around the seats, making the rules more visible.

But the rules don't say the seats must be kept empty until a qualifying person boards the train. I wish people would be less reluctant to say, "May I have that seat?" when they're entitled to them. That's the best enforcement policy.

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