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    Friday, May 24, 2024

    OPINION: To cool the anger, DOT must clarify merging policy

    When it comes to informing drivers about the best way to merge at highway construction sites that require lane closures, the state Department of Transportation is failing. That failure places public safety at risk.

    Some people are convinced that when they see a sign warning of a lane closure ahead, the right thing to do is merge as soon as possible. Other people are convinced that is exactly the wrong thing to do. They say research supports a different approach, called zipper merging.

    Zipper merging, also called late merging, uses both lanes of traffic up to the point of lane closure. Then drivers alternate passing through the merge point, zipper style.

    A growing number of states have adopted the zipper merging approach, among them Kansas, Missouri, Washington, Minnesota, North Carolina, Arizona and Indiana. Many European countries also educate the driving public to use that method. The American Automobile Association endorses its use.

    I contacted the Connecticut DOT to find out its policy.

    “There is no official Connecticut DOT policy on early merge versus late merge,” said Josh Morgan, communications director for the department.

    This is not good.

    Some drivers are convinced that the polite and proper thing to do is to merge as soon as possible. They view as rude and selfish those drivers who continue to push forward in the closing lane. Some drivers will tailgate the car in front of them to block those who have driven ahead from getting in line at the merge point. I have seen trucks straddle both lanes to block vehicles from moving forward in the closing lane.

    Other drivers are equally convinced that using both lanes right up to the merge point is the smart and correct thing to do. To them the drivers who are being rude and selfish and, well, stupid are those who won’t let them in near the merger point.

    Having different drivers with different approaches, all convinced they are right, is a recipe for trouble. We have all heard about road rage.

    How do I know people have such strongly held opinions on the matter of merging? My last column was about the increase in the bottle and can deposit to 10 cents and its expansion to more beverage containers. I observed that some folks won’t recycle unless coerced by having to recover a deposit. They are like those drivers who will not merge until they must, I wrote, pushing past the rest of us in a race to the merger point.

    That little comment struck a nerve. I received about a dozen emails. They were split between those who agreed that it was awful how some drivers move ahead in the closing lane and those who chastised me for being clueless. Hadn’t I heard of the zipper merging approach?

    The DOT, I soon found out, is also clueless on the issue.

    When I first emailed the department, I got a response from Samaia Hernandez, a spokesperson. She emailed me a set of “Tips for driving safely in a work zone.” These included, “Motorists can help maintain traffic flow and posted speeds by merging as soon as possible. Don't drive right up to the lane closure and then try to barge in.”

    And she added, “The earlier a driver can safely merge, the better. Oftentimes, drivers will continue to drive as far up to the cones, barrels, crash vehicle, etc. as possible in order to get into the queue. This actually causes slowdowns and increases the amount of time traffic can be impacted. Merging earlier is safer and decreases the amount of traffic impact.”

    When I pressed Hernandez on the topic, pointing out other states had a different approach, she retreated.

    “Yes, I actually sent that prematurely,” she said of the early merging advice. There were differences of opinion at the DOT, she acknowledged. She also sent along federal guidelines, which reference the zipper merging approach. And her boss, Morgan, contacted me.

    Morgan described my questions about DOT policy as “a learning experience here” and a cause for discussion.

    “Whether this turns into an official policy, I don’t know,” he said.

    At the very least, the DOT should have a clear position and let drivers know what it is. Any guidelines should be added to driver training instructions. Merging at highway construction sites is a regular occurrence.

    Research backs the zipper approach, Morgan said. By using both lanes longer, it reduces backups. Drivers find it is fairer because no one is getting a jump on them. If done right, it is easier and safer. But doing it right is the challenge.

    “The zipper merge only works if everyone is on board with it,” he said. “But it is something that Connecticut drivers are not used to.”

    Endorsing the zipper method would require an extensive public education program and new signage, such as “Use Both Lanes to Merge Point.”

    But it is doable and probably should be done. I know I learned something.

    Paul Choiniere is the former editorial page editor of The Day, now retired. He can be reached at p.choiniere@yahoo.com.

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