Revisiting the merge west of Bremerton

The in basket: One of the most common complaints to the Road Warrior, and a frequent subject of this column, is the etiquette of merging on southbound Highway  3 as it approaches Highway 304 west of Bremerton. 

My wife, the Judybaker, who is caught in that backup much more often than I am, disagrees with me on the proper thing to do. She agrees with all the people who think merging as early as possible into the left lane is the proper approach. I advocate filling the two lanes equally and merging only at the last moment, the so-called “zipper” tactic that I’m told is  advocated on highway signs in Europe. 

I’ve been unable to explain why, but it seems to me the traffic moves faster when enough drivers stay in the right lane that it fills up equal with the inside lane. 

The out basket: An author named Tom Vanderbilt has written a book called “Traffic” that provides a a possible explanation of what I have observed.

Vanderbilt’s book has gotten quite a bit of publicity this summer. I’ve seen excerpts from it in the Los Angeles Times Sunday opinion section and in The Week magazine, and classmate Mary Thomas Rathke told me at a class reunion that she’d heard him interviewed on National Public Radio.

Among the interesting excerpts was the fact that even under the best conditions, only 5.5 percent of a highway is occupied by vehicles at any one time. And that percentage diminishes with increased vehicle speeds, as drivers leave more room between themselves and the car ahead. So higher speeds don’t make a highway more efficient.

Vanderbilt offers information that may comfort embattled Port Orchard officials who are having to defend their plans for roundabouts on Tremont Street. 

Roundabouts reduce traffic delays by 65 percent, he writes, eliminating time spent at red lights at traditional intersections and waiting for a long line of traffic to move when the light turns green. And they are safer, reducing the possible 56 possible collision points at a signalized intersection to only 16, he said.

Here is what he says about the conflict between Early Mergers and Late Mergers.

Early Merge produces fewer “traffic conflicts” and rear end collisions, but it “suffers from a critical flaw,” he wrote. “One simulation showed that it actually takes vehicles longer to travel through the narrowed zone, perhaps because faster-moving cars were being put behind slower-moving cars sooner than they might naturally have gotten there.

“The Late Merge,” he writes, “directs (drivers) to ‘Use Both Lanes to Merge Point.’ The beauty of the Late Merge system is that it removes the anxiety drivers may feel in choosing lanes, as well as their annoyance with a passing ‘cheating’ driver. It also compresses what may normally be thousands of feet of potential merging maneuvers to a single point. As a result, it produced a 15 percent improvement in traffic flow over conventional merges when traffic is heavy enough to create congestion,” Vanderbilt wrote.

I was predisposed to accept Vanderbilt’s analysis, of course. The Judybaker wasn’t convinced and still thinks merging early is better.

My hope is that hearing of Vanderbilt’s analysis will encourage more Late Mergers to test the theory at the 3-304 backup by using the right lane.

7 thoughts on “Revisiting the merge west of Bremerton

  1. What would really help the 3-304 merger is the State replacing the merge signs with a picture of an upside down half open zipper. The signs in use now look like two lanes moving closer together yet still divided, not two lanes becoming one. This would also help convince the early mergers that both lanes are to be treated equally, as they were designed.

    That traffic backup would be completely eliminated with very little slow-down if everyone left a little space between themselves and the vehicle in front of them and learned to use the zipper effect. Instead, early mergers ride the bumper of the vehicle in front of them to prevent late mergers from cutting in. As soon as someone taps the brakes to keep from getting too close it causes a chain reaction of brake lights behind them where everyone has to come to a complete stop.

    Come on early mergers, get with the program, back off, use both lanes equally and zipper together, it’s not that hard to do.

  2. Early mergers (I’m one) do NOT ride the bumper of the car ahead…

    I’ve thought the left lane is for passing only…you are saying it isn’t if drivers are urged to use the left lane regardless of speed in order to merge closer to the actual merge point.

    But I’ll try it.

  3. I am one who merges at the true merge point, usually, believing that it is a more efficient use of the total pavement. It can be difficult to merge there sometimes.
    A good friend believes that one should merge as soon as you read the sign that says that the lane is going to end (eventually.) She believes that those who merge later are “cutting” into a line of some sort. She doesn’t tailgate to prevent later mergers, but she is very annoyed by them.
    If we are together in a car, the driver gets to make the decision, in the interest of preserving our friendship. I have, however, pointed out that the left lane is not a line for anything, so allowing someone into it is not going to cause a loss for the allowing driver and/or her passengers.

  4. I agree with roundabouts but not two lane roundabouts like they are proposing on Tremont. If these go in as planned there will be unending howling from drivers. You can count on it.

  5. I would just like to add my two cents worth. I was caught once on 16 heading towards the Narrows Bridge (before the second bridge was finished) They were warning folks that the left lane would be closed 2 miles ahead (right before the bridge). People not only got into the right lane right after the 5/16 interchange, but a number of them straddled the lane line to prevent anyone from using the left lane. As a result, we sat in traffic for over two and a half hours with the left lane completely open. This is a Washington state phenomenon that I have observed time and time again.

    I will simply make the point that merging lanes, whether temporary or permanent, exist for a reason. Whether you wish to merge early or late is really your choice, but please do not get mad at those drivers who will drive until they actually have to merge. They are using the lanes the way they were designed and are not ‘cheating’. With everyone panicking and merging as soon as they see the signs, traffic is actually being made much worse than it needs to be. Go to the end and then every-other-car!

  6. I doubt any sort of discussion or signs will make a difference at the 3/304 merge. Look at 304 since they have changed it to have a diamond lane that has a center lane merge with it and an outside lane to Silverdale/Hywy 3. I have seen all three lanes stopped because they are all trying to merge into to the single lane to cross over the overpass to Gorst. You actually have drivers in the 3rd lane for Silverdale cutting over and merging within a 100 feet of the overpass. The double white line of the diamond lane is ignored and I have seen many single occupant vehicles in the diamond lane. But that is all ok. The State Patrol does not give tickets in that area very often. The double white lines where 3 and 304 actually merge have been ignored for years. Now what we have is 5 lanes converging on a 2 lane road into Gorst. Talk about accidents waiting to happen. As for roundabouts, I have seen them all over the world, from 1 lane to 10 lanes. I doubt very much that the typical driver in the USA will ever learn how to properly drive in a roundabout. The County or State should put a small parking and viewing area in the center of the roundabouts. It could make money selling tickets to see the almost demolition derby that the roundabouts seem to cause. My guess is they will work at their best when only those who are children now are the oldest drivers on the road. Until then the “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” concept is still in effect.
    Roger Gay
    South Kitsap

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