Back-Seat Driver

You’re rude. No, you’re rude. Drivers disagree on how to merge when your lane ends

We asked Bee readers last week about a common but controversial freeway moment: When faced with a sign saying, “Lane ends ahead, merge left,” should you merge immediately or scoot ahead, passing other cars, until your lane ends?

No surprise. We got no consensus. Drivers are adamant on both sides.

Pat Longest says she gets in her lane early, and is angered by those who zoom by in the other lane. They’re rude, she says. You can read her lips as you pass by. “I say it out loud.”

Some of those “side zoomers” though say they are being the opposite of rude. They’re reducing congestion by efficiently using available freeway space. Robert Massagli is emphatic: “If there is unused pavement on a highway, by all means USE IT!”

Even transportation officials are divided. Caltrans says early merges are safer. But reader Bill Draper sent us a link to Minnesota’s Department of Transportation website, which urges drivers to merge late.

“Don’t worry about being ‘Minnesota nice,’ ” MDoT writes. “When traffic is heavy and slow, it is much safer for motorists to remain in their current lane until the point where traffic can orderly take turns merging.”

We checked with California Highway Patrol officials for a tiebreaker, but they demurred. Instead, a spokesman said, just merge cordially and safely.

Barry Goleman, a former DMV driver’s license examiner, came up with an astute take. It’s not a matter of either/or, he said. It’s a matter of reading the road situation. “If there is an available space before I get to the merge point, I will signal and take the opportunity there. If not, I will continue using the available space to get to the ‘zipper’ location.”

The “zipper merge” location is generally at the front of the line, about where the lane ends, where cars ideally will take turns merging into the lane, like teeth of a jacket zipper.

Drivers complain, though, that some fellow travelers will purposely speed up and get closer to the car ahead of them to block cars in the next lane from merging.

We heard from one reader who does just that. “Yes,” Marlee Evers wrote, “I have been the lane blocker.” She merges early, she says, and is more than willing to allow space for other early mergers. But when late mergers try to nose their way in at the last minute ... nope.

Another reader, Ed Swafford, laments what he calls the “hanger backers” in freeway jams, when cars are packed together and moving slowly. Those are the drivers who continuously maintain empty road space in front of them allowing car after car from other lanes to pull in. His theory, based on observation: Hanger backers often are fiddling with their cell phones instead of paying attention to the road ahead.

The debate brought up another pet peeve – drivers who change lanes without using their turn signals. This is a big one. We once had a local superior court judge write us saying he was dumbfounded by the number of freeway drivers who won’t take the simple step of using a blinker.

The law about signaling before changing lanes or turning is slightly vague, though. The vehicle code says you must signal “in the event any other vehicle may be affected by the movement.”

We’ve asked some CHP officers what that “may be affected” wording is supposed to mean. They say if there is another car anywhere around, you should play it safe and signal.

You aren’t supposed to signal at the last second. The code says you have to signal your intentions continuously “during the last 100 feet.” On a regular city street, that’s about a third of a block. On the freeway, at high speeds, though, that may be just a few seconds.

Goleman, our DMV driving examiner, explains that you shouldn’t turn on your blinker, then drive along looking for a place to merge. That may just annoy drivers next to you.

“It does not communicate any useful information to the other drivers,” he wrote us. “The correct action would be to activate the signal when you have identified the point you will merge and signal to the driver you intend to pull in front of.”

That’s practically Minnesota nice.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak