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The Late Merger
November 18, 2009
Though I don’t feel quite right about it, I just had to give it a try. It is an experiment of sorts, I guess. I just had to know what it was like to be one of the few, one of the proud, one of the obnoxious—one of the late mergers. You know these people. Most of you, when you are crawling along the highway in heavy traffic and see a sign telling you that the lane will end in one mile (or one kilometer if you’re up here in Canada), quickly bump over into the lane that will not end, glad that you’ve immediately sorted out that problem. Now you can be assured that you won’t find yourself squeezed onto the shoulder or parked endlessly with your light blinking, trying to squeeze your way out of that dying lane while everyone else tries to block your progress. Yet, as you sit there, content that you’ve done the right thing, you can’t help but notice all those people speeding by to your right, driving their cars to the edge, to the brink, to the very last car-length of the lane that is about to end. You grouch, your grumble, you remark on their complete lack of care for the other people on the road. And yet you have to admit that they will get where they are going before you will. They seem unaffected by your plight, content to further their own goals even at your expense.
I’ve been there. And I just had to try life as a late merger. I now zip down that ending lane and merge at the very last second, finding a gap in traffic and squeezing my van into it. I get the dirty looks and angry stares. But I get where I’m going sooner than they do.
In his book Traffic Tom Vanderbilt discusses this same phenomenon. He, too, became a late merger, much to his wife’s chagrin, and he found that life is better this way. “It is a question you have no doubt asked yourself while crawling down some choked highway, watching with mounting frustration as the adjacent cars glide ahead. You drum the wheel with your fingers. You change the radio station. You fixate on one car as a benchmark of your own lack of progress. You try to figure out what that weird button next to the rear-window defroster actually does. I used to think this was just part of the natural randomness of the highway. Sometimes fate would steer me into the faster lane, sometimes it would relinquish me to the slow lane.” But he made a major lifestyle change when he became a late merger.
But the days after he first experimented with late merging were not easy. “In the days after, a creeping guilt and confusion took hold. Was I wrong to have done this? Or had I been doing it wrong all my life.” Seeking answers, he headed to an online community and posed the question to the waiting masses. He was rather surprised at the response, not just in the volume of responses but also in the passion and conviction with which people spoke. Some argued that he was a goon, refusing to do the sort of random acts of kindness that benefit all of society. By refusing to merge early, he was contributing to the overall slowness of the highway and making accidents more likely. Others argued that he was simply a good steward, using the highway to its maximum capacity. After all, what is the purpose of all that asphalt if we are not really allowed to drive on it? By maximizing the use of the highway surface he was actually making life better for everyone. Politeness or fairness (real or perceived) were actually detrimental to everyone.
Later in the book Vanderbilt gives empirical evidence as to what works best—whether early merging or late merging is better in the end. And he offers up his take on how we can best keep traffic flowing.
But for now, by way of light-hearted fare, do tell me, are you a late merger or an early merger? And how do you feel about the people who do the opposite of what you do?