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Courtesy Makes The Traffic Jams Go Away

First, to give credit where credit is due, I found the video above via a Cracked article: http://www.cracked.com/article_19004_6-things-that-annoy-you-every-day-explained-by-science_p2.html

It gets mentioned in the second item where they explain what shockwave jams are. The video is of a man demonstrating and explaining how driving with a space ahead of him and maintaining it, rather than speeding up to catch up to the traffic ahead of him, it breaks up the traffic jam. Because he’s for the most part maintaining his speed and his distance from the car ahead of him he’s not braking a lot. This means the people behind him don’t have to brake either. The other way it helps prevent traffic jams is that the gap he maintains gives people a chance to get on and off the highway. So people are able to get where they are going rather than having to slow down as they run out of room to make their exit due to people not letting them in.

This video isn’t going to make anyone laugh but it’s a really cool example of how a) 1 person can make a difference and b) being polite helps everyone around you.    0326-11


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sandy March 30, 2011, 6:53 am

    I love this post – I love when he explains how each person in the jam up situation feel justified in their position. It really helps when you think things through this way and realize that with only a few exceptions the people in the other car are just trying to get through traffic just like you and are not evil geniuses trying to outsmart you.

    The third benefit, which he mentions very briefly at the end, is really the biggest benefit of all. This is a benefit I take advantage of every single day, feeling so much calmer when I reach my destination.

  • elicat March 30, 2011, 7:27 am

    Funny you should mention this. I’ve been commuting 2 hours a day for over 20 years. Fairly recently the DOT revised the highway entrance by my workplace from one lane to two. (There’s a two-lane left turn onto the highway at a traffic light, so all the traffic is stopped until the light turns green, and then the traffic enters the two lanes, which then merge into one.)

    If people are “nice” and every driver alternates (one car enters from the right lane, another enters from the left lane, next from the right lane, and so forth), then traffic flows smoothly. However, invariably the people in the left lane try to block out the people from the right lane, and that makes the traffic jam. Oddly enough, many people queue up in the left lane at the traffic light, and the right lane is free until by necessity cars begin queuing up in the right lane (so that traffic doesn’t spill into the road we’re currently on). I can only speculate the left-laners might possibly have a “me-first” attitude and aren’t interested in whether their actions cause a traffic jam, as this happens quite frequently.

  • G-Radical March 30, 2011, 8:00 am

    Where I live no one likes to merge or let others merge! You learn to hunt for an open space and drive aggressively so you can move along. The one time someone actually slowed down to let me in through me off guard. My world was turned upside down.

    This driving etiquette will only work if everyone else maintains the same distance. I am curious to see if the cars behind him didn’t create their own traffic jam. Traffic is caused by a ripple effect, one person breaks so everyone else starts to break behind the original car to break and that usually happens anywhere there needs to be merging. Plus, there is that whole “sardine effect” where people always drive in clusters (which drives me insane!) and ultimately leads to traffic jams.

    I know the driver was in an exit lane, but before he was in the exit lane he was driving slow in the left lane. Generally the left lane is for faster traffic so I find it inconsiderate when people drive slow there. If someone passes you on the right then you should move over to let the faster traffic pass. We don’t know why these “cheaters” do what they do. I know when my mom has been admitted to the hospital or my friend is stranded by a broken down car I will try to get there as fast as I can, so yes, sometimes I will cheat cause those extra ten seconds give me a peace of mind – that I could do everything I could do to get their as quickly as possible.

  • Just Laura March 30, 2011, 8:26 am

    Routes 78 and 80 in NJ are main arteries for commuters into NYC from NJ. In the fast lane, cars stop/go/slam on brakes/go again, etc. In the other lanes, people have dealt with this horrid traffic for years, so for the most part, they drive as the gentleman above suggests. I always remained in the middle lanes, and I like to think my car’s clutch and brakes thank me. I found that in parts of the country less accustomed to a large volume of traffic, the stop/go mentality is worse.
    Slow and steady wins the race.

  • Amanda March 30, 2011, 8:55 am

    I don’t know about this. I think the best way this driving style helps is that the driver becomes a “Zen warrior” and is less likely to feel the rage induced by having the cheaters increase your commute through their self-centered, entitled driving style. I have problem letting cars just entering the highway merge in front of me, but letting in cheaters feels like making myself a doormat just to avoid an unpleasant confrontation.

    Imagine you are standing in a long line for the ladies restroom. A woman gets in the men’s line, which always moves faster. When she gets to be next in the men’s line, she says, “Ooops, I need to be in the other line! Can you just let me be next in that line?” But everyone knows, (and she knows they know, but doesn’t care) that she did this on purpose to avoid standing in line as long as the other women have. Her situation isn’t more urgent than the other women; she just thinks she’s more important.

    Is this behavior to be rewarded? Or do you boot her to the back of the women’s line, let her pout about it, and hope she learns more respect for all the women and men who followed the rules?

    The way I see it, leaving a huge space that makes it easier for the cheaters to merge really encourages them to continue. If they consistantly had to sit in the Exit Only lane where they knew they did not want to exit and wait for someone to let them in while listening to people who do want to exit honk at them for clogging up the exit, they would eventually decide shaving 2 minutes off their commute was not worth the hassle.

    Get even 50% of the cheaters thinking this way and suddenly the lane that was moving too slowly for them isn’t moving so slowly because people aren’t slowing down to accommodate as many drivers who think their time is more important the the hundreds of other people trying to get to work at the same time.

  • Amanda March 30, 2011, 8:57 am

    Oops. I *don’t* have a problem letting in cars just entering the highway.

  • Shayna March 30, 2011, 9:16 am

    Why is this not a standard part of driver training programs and in all driver manuals? It’s genious!

  • Rachel March 30, 2011, 9:41 am

    After reading the article on Cracked (I love that site), I tried this, and it does work! A big part of driving is psychological, so if you can get past the “Oh no people are going faster than me!” thoughts, you can make a huge difference. Just take your time and let people in front of you, and you’ll get where you’re going a whole lot faster.

  • Anonymous March 30, 2011, 9:53 am

    If only the drivers in MN could figure this out. It’s what I do an you can’t believe how many dirty looks/gestures and agressive driving it causes here. I am NOT one of those who drives slow in the fast lane either, just maintain a safe driving distance, as taught in drivers ed.

  • ashley March 30, 2011, 10:06 am

    I like this^^ It explains how one of the most basic traffic rules is there for a reason and helps everybody 🙂

  • Hal March 30, 2011, 10:28 am

    This is great! I will do it. I hope we will all give it a try.

  • Robert March 30, 2011, 10:32 am

    This is the way I drive in stop and go traffic. I developed the habit when I was driving a manual transmission car. It’s just easier to maintain a steady slow pace rather than speeding up, breaking, changing gears and constantly hitting the clutch.

    I didn’t watch the video so I don’t know if it is mentioned but this tends to incite some drivers who can’t stand the fact that you are leaving room in front of your car. I’ve had people honk at me, flash their light, give me the finger and swear/scream at me. It’s like I’m torturing their puppy or something!

    The best was a guy who was staying inches from my bumper (which made me slow down more, not out of spite but I can’t control how close a person gets behind me and if they get too close I feel like I need to slow down so they have a chance of stopping before hitting me if I have to brake suddenly). This guy was red in the face by the time he finally got an opening and passed me. He immediately pulled in front of me and slowed to a crawl (which I matched).

    I turned to my wife and said, “Does this guy really think driving slow is going to bother the person he is enraged at for driving slow?” I mean, it makes absolutely no sense. He lasted about thirty seconds then he gunned it, accelerated hard and slammed on his breaks when he reached the car in front of him (and tailgated that person until he managed to pass them).

    I commuted in rush hour traffic for a few years and almost everyday there were multiple fender benders that were completely preventable. Some people just have this crazy attitude that they MUST keep any other car from getting between them and the car in front of them. They speed up and slow down trying to make sure there is never enough room for a car to pull in front of them and this inevitably leads to them rear ending someone. I just can’t fathom the thought process that goes through these people’s heads.

  • Ashley March 30, 2011, 11:06 am

    Traffic jams should NEVER happen, they are only caused by people’s impatience. I try to let cars in early to avoid them all rushing down to the end and getting jammed up when they try to merge at the last second. Doesn’t always work but if it helps even a little bit, I’m happy.

  • Enna March 30, 2011, 11:09 am

    It also allows a greater breaking distance so if an accident happens it’s less likely to be one involving several cars. Also with drivers who tail-gate for ages and finally over take to go zooming off you normally meet them at the next junction, roundabout, traffic lights waiting then when you arrive you barely stop before it’s clear agin. In the UK’s Highway Code it says to be patient and considerate to other drivers as everyone can make mistakes and sometimes people are in a new area too – leaving big gaps makes a clamer journey like this man said but also allows more room for error. My firend works in insurance and one of the things that is noticed in her company is that if people are scared by other dirvers or get angry at other drivers they are more likely to have an accident -taking a calmer, slower, more sedate journey can lead to a less stressful and quicker journery.

  • aje March 30, 2011, 11:10 am

    Good for admin posting this video! Too often road rage is looked at as silly and normal instead of what it is- RUDE! We all make little mistakes driving sometimes… scary to admit it, but it’s true. And if we can admit to ourselves that sometimes we forget the turn signal or pull out too soon instead of being patient and waiting, then it’s easier to forgive other people.
    I think everyone should make an effort to be kind wherever they may be- including the road!

  • Ellie March 30, 2011, 12:10 pm

    Robert, I can sympathize with your position. I have tried to leave a safe following distance between my car and the one in front of me, but inevitably someone thinks they should squeeze their car into my “safe” zone, because moving up one car length will *really* help them in the long run (not). It has happened so many times on the busiest of the NJ highways that it worries me about my own safety, so out of necessity I’ve gotten rid of that extra space. I’m not happy about that, but whenever I do relax and leave more room, someone always shoots in and cuts me off.

    Unfortunately, I think my point is that as much as I would love everyone to get along and drive more safely, it hasn’t worked for me, and for my own safety I like to control the distance in front of my car. I can’t control anyone else on the road, but if I can make it so there’s no room for them to cut me off, so be it, I’ll do exactly that. And I’m just talking about regular traffic here, not merge lanes. For those, I always do every other car.

  • Rug Pilot March 30, 2011, 12:30 pm

    Interesting how traffic flow follows the laws of fluid dynamics as I remarked to my engineer friend while riding in the 405 parking lot in Los Angeles. Sometimes I wish I had a bumper sticker that said: Nno, I am NOT in YOUR hurry.

  • LovleAnjel March 30, 2011, 12:37 pm


    I had similar incident, except the guy decided stay in the passing lane to box me in between two semis before zooming off. A few miles later down the road, I saw him pulled over for speeding. 🙂

  • RP March 30, 2011, 1:20 pm

    I know the driver was in an exit lane, but before he was in the exit lane he was driving slow in the left lane. Generally the left lane is for faster traffic so I find it inconsiderate when people drive slow there.

    I agree with you in general but you can see at 1:24 he gets a chance to move into the left-most lane which is marked by the diamond symbol. This means it’s the carpool lane. It’s not necessary to leave this lane just because people not carpooling are passing you.

  • SHOEGAL March 30, 2011, 1:32 pm

    My husband is an absolute nut on the road and a cheater. He would NEVER do this and would think it is wrong. He is also one who is in it to win it. To him – it is a race. He believes that everyone else doesn’t know what they are doing and that is why there is a traffic jam. One thing that he does which I kind of agree with (well – it is food for thought, anyway) is that he gets in the lane that is going to merge. When one lane is going to end due to construction or whatever, everybody else lines up immediately in the other lanes waiting their turn. He says – that if people used that lane until the point of merging there wouldn’t be such a back up but everybody wants to be in the correct lane – they all line up and wait. He says you are supposed to use the lane that is ending all the way until the point of merging.

  • Anonymous Works For Me March 30, 2011, 2:10 pm

    I have been doing this for YEARS! I don’t like to tailgate, but I never realized that I might be such a super hero. I wish more people would drive this way.

  • David March 30, 2011, 3:55 pm

    I recognized I-5 from the start of the video. I always follow at least the 4 second rule, just because if I need to stop, I don’t want to rear end the people ahead of me.

  • Leslie Holman-Anderson March 30, 2011, 5:40 pm

    I’m also in the greater Seattle area. I didn’t know there was any science involved, but I’ve been driving this way for about 15 years. Leave space — it’s safer, it gives you more options, it’s far more relaxed and the frantic driver you allow in is more likely to do the same for someone down the road.

    And if you’re the recipient of another driver’s courtesy, let them know their kindness has been appreciated. Wave, make the ‘OK’ gesture, or anything else you can do one handed.

  • Bat Country March 30, 2011, 6:40 pm

    People are always in a hurry to wait, I don’t get it. When I’m in the city and I’m approaching a light that’s going from yellow to red, I take my foot off the gas and coast to the light (as long as no one is waiting for me to go by to turn left or right on or off the road). Why waste gas hurrying up to the light? There’s no prize for first place. What is surprising to me I seem to be the rare person who does this. Always the person next to me in the lane will “beat” me to the light. Sometimes I don’t even have to completely lose forward momentum before the light turns green. Gas could be 5$ a gallon yet you’d still probably see this everywhere.

  • JO March 30, 2011, 7:04 pm

    I already do this in Australia, it keeps the momentum going, in particular when you have a large b-Double truck behind you. It takes them a long time to go from stop to going again so if you are in a heavily trafficked area, slowing to a rolling pace instead of tearing up behind them to stop keeps that truck rolling and not stop starting therefore, reducing the stopping of traffic further behind.

    It does work and I always use it

  • Chelsey March 30, 2011, 7:47 pm


    “This driving etiquette will only work if everyone else maintains the same distance. ”

    Actually, it would work even if they didn’t maintain the same distance. Even if you were, say, 20 feet away from someone and the person behind you was five feet away from your bumper, you’re still moving at a constant speed which means s/he will also be moving at a constant speed.

  • Rachel March 30, 2011, 7:51 pm


    I’ve heard that the best way to handle merges, in heavy traffic, when a lane is closed due to construction is actually to wait to merge late- that way the cars are using all available space, and then, you just have one zipper merge at the end, rather than having a line of 20 cars in the non-closed lane, all of whom are having to stop to let people in at various points. So the “cheaters” are actually helping things along (if people at the end let them in) in that they’re spreading traffic out. (Note: this does not apply to something like hanging out in the exit only lane when you don’t intend to exit. That’s just slightly dangerous and rude.)

    There’s a study on it here:


  • Mrelia March 30, 2011, 9:18 pm

    I’ve practiced ‘accordian’ spacing for years, allowing the space in front of me to grow and shrink while working to match the average speed of traffic so I’m not always stopping and starting. The benefits are enormous, the space allows people to change lanes and merge more readily, it smooths out the traffic waves, keeps me focused on my driving AND ups my mpg. I like to think that by lubricating traffic even just a bit saves other people fuel as well.

  • Ange March 31, 2011, 3:17 am

    Yes, it is actually promoted by tv spots and campaigns to do this in both countries (Europe) where I have lived. Merge at the last moment to take maximum use of the available road. This makes me feel now that the people merging early are actually the cheaters.
    Also, I don’t know if this system (of leaving a lot of space infront of you) actually works over here were you are not supposed to pass on the right. Being in the left lane with a lot of space might cause people in the lane to the right of you to have to pass you, which wouldn’t be allowed and would make them have to slow down.
    I like the more ‘zen’ way of driving though 🙂

  • Nichs March 31, 2011, 5:16 am

    I learned something new from this video.

    I like to leave a large space in front of me for safety reasons, but I definitely get the “can’t let anyone get ahead of me” mentality occasionally. After seeing this video, I’m not going to let it bother me when people merge in front of me, and will continue to keep plenty of space between myself and the next car.

    I was also raised in Seattle and now go to school about sixty miles south of there but commute home to my parents’ house frequently. I’ve driven that stretch of I-5 countless times and know how snarly it can get.

  • Jillybean March 31, 2011, 9:21 am

    Ellie – the solution to your dilemma isn’t to ride closer to the car in front of you (which is dangerous), it’s to simply slow up enough to create a new gap each time a car joins the lane in front of you. It usually requires temporarily reducing your speed by no more than 2-3 mph. I try to leave at least 2 cars lengths between myself and the car in front of me. Plenty of room for a car to join the lane without “cutting me off”. And if a car takes that spot, I reduce speed slightly until a new 2 car gap is created.

  • Clair Seulement March 31, 2011, 10:10 am

    Great video! I had the same concerns as G-Radical and Ellie–I wonder if this would even work in NJ, where *any* distance between cars is automatically interpreted as a welcoming gap for other cars to shoehorn into. But I haven’t tried it yet.

    @Shoegal: I gotta disagree–it’s always been my impression that the people who drive all the way to the end of a merge lane cause traffic, because the diminishing space in which to perform the merge forces people to have to slow way down or even come to a complete stop , whereas early merging can easily be done while the cars are still moving at speed. I think this is why many states actually post signs asking drivers to begin merging a good distance prior to the lane’s end (NJ does not and I’ve always wished that they would). I could be way off the mark though…

  • RMMuir March 31, 2011, 11:47 am

    @Clair Seulement I may be misunderstanding (I’m not a driver yet!) but isn’t the point of this that you are leaving them the space to get into?

  • Alison March 31, 2011, 12:17 pm

    Not to mention that the way he’s driving saves gas. Every time you hit the brake unnecessarily you lose money.

  • Leslie Holman-Anderson March 31, 2011, 12:34 pm

    To those who commented about waiting until the last moment to merge: Here in Washington, it’s technically the law to do just that, especially when there’s an obstruction in your lane, such as construction or an accident. But I learned to drive in California, where we were taught to ‘drive ahead’ fifty to a hundred feet so as to be aware of what’s happening down the road, and to merge as soon as we became aware we might need to. This meant that when you wanted to merge there were likely to be spaces into which to do so smoothly, with minimal disruption to the overall flow. In Washington, though, you see people drive directly up to the obstruction, come to a full stop, and sit there with their blinker going, waiting for someone to let them in — which can take a very long time. I see people take hair-raising risks trying to pull into fifty-mile-an-hour traffic from a dead stop, while I continue to drive ahead and merge at what seems to me a much more sensible time. And if I’m technically breaking the law, so be it.

  • Clair Seulement March 31, 2011, 1:05 pm

    @RMMuir–I was thinking of trafficky situations where people get in front of until you’re forced to hit your breaks because you never get a chance to leave enough space to do what the video suggests. But who knows, I’m willing to give it a shot!

  • Robert March 31, 2011, 1:57 pm

    @Jillibean RE your response to Ellie.

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s all in how you look at it. If you see driving as a competition then you consider anyone who pulls in front of you to be a “cheater” who got the best of you and you try to make sure NO ONE can get in front of you which is very dangerous. If you look at driving as a cooperative endeavor with the common goal of everyone getting to where they want to go with the least amount of hassle and frustration then you are not concerned when someone pulls in front of you, you simply adjust to the new configuration.

    Anyone who wants to drive like this, at a slow steady pace allowing a gap in front of you that lengthens and shortens as other drivers speed up and slow down HAS to get over the attitude that someone pulling in front of them is wrong because it will happen. A lot. I’ve had situations where a half dozen or more cars will pull into the gap I created speeding up until they have to hit their brakes or hit the car in front of them. It doesn’t bother me…it’s really not a competition.

    That being said I am a big believer in the zipper method of merging, perhaps too mush so. In an extreme case the car in front of me merged ahead of the car next to them so I proceeded to merge behind that car. Unfortunately the person in the lane behind that car had the “I will drive inches from this persons bumper and not let ANYONE get the better of me by getting in front of me!” attitude.

    Unfortunately for him I am very comfortable with my car spatially and had no problem getting close to someone. As the lanes merged I would get close to this guys car, he would get scared and edge away from me, I would get close, he would edge away. By the time it was only one lane I was happily driving behind the car I had merged behind and the guy who refused to merge behind me was driving next to me in the on coming traffic lane with cars coming at him at 50 MPH.

    In retrospect it probably would have been better to just let the guy keep his coveted position. I live on a dead end street and I had completely forgotten about the incident as I pulled into my driveway and realized that guy had actually followed me home! He slowly drove by my house then had to turn around at the cul-de-sac. As he cruised by my driveway again I gave him a big smile and wave and made a show of writing down his license plate number; when he saw that he took off at high speed never to be seen again.

  • RMMuir March 31, 2011, 6:03 pm

    @Clair Seulement: Fair enough! Let us know how it goes!

  • Butterfly April 1, 2011, 3:31 pm

    I love this, I actually do it too but I didn’t realize what an impact it had. I just do it because letting my driving flow, letting people merge, and keeping a nice buffer around my car is great meditation on the road. Pebble in the pond . . . no?

  • Jillybean April 1, 2011, 5:33 pm

    @Robert – I support the zipper merge as well – every other car is always going to be the most effective for the flow, and I actually think it might be the official driving rule where I live. Though it never stops people from trying to “block” drivers from getting in because they think they should be at the back of a line that never should have existed.

  • Jillybean April 1, 2011, 8:35 pm

    BTW – I’ve also noticed this works in local city traffic as well. By leaving extra room between cars, it allows for cars on the opposite side to take a left hand turn in front of you, or for cars on the side streets to turn into the lane in front of you, preventing them from having to block the other lane of traffic and bring it to a halt in order to get across.

  • Ally May 4, 2011, 12:45 am

    This video has saved me!! I have been using it to drive in peak hour traffic and it works!! I never come to a complete stop and its so much more peaceful driving.

  • Starry-Eyed Abelone July 30, 2011, 12:28 pm

    When my family and I were going to the fair, we saw someone driving in the emergency lane, which is illegal. Why would you drive in a lane that you shouldn’t be in unless you have car trouble??

  • Jillybean July 30, 2011, 8:53 pm

    Starry-Eyed – though I doubt it was the case in the instance you saw, in my area there are actually times where driving in the breakdown lane (which is what we call the emergency lane) is legal. There are even posted hours. And frequently for big events they will open it up as well. But if you only saw one person doing it, I doubt that was the case.

  • Emma June 16, 2013, 3:23 pm

    This is so true! I have been driving like this for months now, all chill and zen, staying within the speed limit and leaving space so I don’t have to break as much. I literally DOUBLED my MPG and saved so much gas and money!