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For Everyone's Sake, Do the Zipper Merge

by on June 11, 2018 5:00 AM

The buzz term for this summer is “zipper merge.” It’s the hot topic around the water cooler and around the dinner table. Do you zipper merge? “I zipper merged yesterday and it felt great” or “I would never zipper merge.” The zipper merge is in the news and on social media. All the cool kids are doing it.

What is a zipper merge? Theoretically, if you want to see it in action, check out the road repairs that are taking place on I-99 between the Toftrees and Penn State exits. The signs start warning drivers well in advance that the road will converge to one lane. The big orange signs instruct drivers to use both lanes to the merge point. Both lanes should then be full of drivers, rather than one long line of traffic in one lane, moving at a snail’s pace. At the merge point, drivers should take turns politely funneling into one lane. Again, theoretically, it should look like the teeth of a zipper as drivers from both lanes come together and take turns merging into one lane.

If only it were that simple. If only people followed directions. If only that person in the blue SUV hadn’t flipped me the bird on my way to work as I passed him on the left while he sat in the long line of traffic in the right lane.

To some people, the zipper mergers are arrogant jerks who jump to the front of the line instead of waiting their turn. To zipper mergers like me, I am just following directions and not wasting time waiting in line.

Many U.S. drivers read the signs that say traffic is being reduced to one lane and so they merge early. That usually results in a very long line of drivers in one lane and miles of unused road in the other. It means frustration and slow-downs and, according to some studies, more accidents and more road rage.

In Europe, and in an increasing number of places in the United States, the zipper merge is strongly encouraged. There have been marketing and driver retraining campaigns in a variety of states that urge drivers to use both lanes until the merge point and then to take turns merging at the point where traffic goes to one lane. The theory goes that the zipper merge will reduce the time waiting in line and will make use of all of the roadways. Zipper merging is efficient and effective.

On I-99, the signs direct drivers to use both lanes to the merge point. At the merge point, the sign says merge here and take turns.

Having personally experienced the middle finger salute from more than one person waiting patiently in the right lane, I can tell you there are still plenty of Pennsylvanians who don’t support the zipper merge.

According to the research, younger drivers tend to be zipper mergers. Older drivers tend to sit in the line, undoubtedly frustrated and angry about having to sit in all of this damn construction every summer and don’t like someone jumping the line.

It reminds me of that infamous elementary school chant.  No cuts, no butts, no interrupts.

I had a laugh out loud moment when one of my friends on Facebook suggested, tongue in cheek, that viewpoints on the zipper merge may fall along political party lines. Hysterical.

It wasn’t quite as funny as I was headed to yoga one evening last week and saw an incident of road rage at that spot on I-99. A driver in a very large tractor trailer didn’t appreciate another motorist using the zipper merge. Waiting in the long line was a truck carrying an “oversized load.” The driver in his accompanying vehicle decided that no one should be using the left lane so he actually pulled his pick-up truck into the left lane to block it. The driver of the car tried to get around the pick-up. It quickly became apparent that the driver of a second semi-truck was not happy about it. I watched in horror as that truck came out into the left lane and attempted to push the car – literally push the car with his very large vehicle – into the grassy median. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  I quickly took a picture of the license plate of the truck and called the police. The officer told me that the driver of the car was on the other line. I might suggest the tractor trailer driver is the one who needed the yoga.

Others have reported being blocked out of the left lane by angry early mergers. One Facebook user said “A guy tried to block me out so I went around him. He gave me the finger. Then, when everyone started moving again, he came up on my rear very fast. I quickly got over and he tried to run me off the road, giving me the finger again.”

Given the number of construction projects across the state and with more drivers on the road during this vacation season, we need to get the word out. More signage is needed. A well-placed police officer or two to help direct the zipper merge as well as the road rage might be a good use of resources as well.

Road rage and its causes and solutions are fodder for discussion on broader societal issues. Getting mad at someone who is following the directions of our transportation experts is irrational, but speaks to some deeper concerns.  

Why not just use both lanes to the merge point and take your turn?  It’s the latest craze. Do the zipper merge.



Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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