It is the closest most of us will come to understanding what it's like to be in a war – or possibly hell.
We experience heart-pounding terror and, on rare occasions, the blissful euphoria that follows surviving a near-death experience.
I’m talking about the dreaded expressway lane merge, an occurrence so traumatizing that many have been known to take public transit – buses!! – than face its consequences. Who hasn’t woken up screaming, palms sweating and eyes bulging from the traumatic memories of trying to blend in from an on-ramp or being engaged in a stare-down with a driver who looks like he may have a body in the trunk of his car? Is it any wonder? Is there anything more diabolical than your average expressway entrance ramp, an asphalt torture chamber that makes Guantanamo Bay’s water-boarding rooms seem like a theme park?
Just think of the ingeniousness of it all. Spread several thousand frustrated drivers across three lanes of a highway. Then funnel them into one lane, a move that ensures they will become even more frustrated and definitely more homicidal. Then take that lane and direct it toward another highway, filled with similar personality types, and expect them all to somehow merge together in harmony and bliss in the space of a football field – American.
It's like putting a thousand starving rats in a maze with one piece of cheese at the exit and expecting them to figure it out without any casualties. That may be a bad analogy considering that it’s been scientifically proven that the average rat is more courteous and more aware of spatial relationships than the average commuter.
But maybe there’s another reason for the lack of civility on our highways: confusion. Maybe we’re not all self-centered, type-A personalities who put a notch on our fenders for each driver we force off the road. Maybe there’s a lot of compassion being swamped by a basic misunderstanding of who gets priority and the question of when to let in another driver – even though the jerk arrived at this mess minutes after you did and just zipped up the on-ramp past everybody and sneaked his monstrous SUV ahead of some dozing driver and probably was in his palatial mansion, sipping brandy while laughing at the fools still playing Mr. Nice Guy on the highway. But I digress. The issue can be rather confusing, which is why we consulted somebody who should know it better than we do.
Teresa Di Felice, director of driver education for the Canadian Automobile Association, feels our pain. To ease it, she points out that Ministry of Transportation guidelines will clarify that merging isn’t the sole responsibility of the guy trying to squeeze into a tiny parking space at 20 km/h. Turns out, it’s the responsibility of both mergers and mergees.
“Those on the highway and those merging are to make sure that it’s done safely and without incident,” she says. “The reality is that in standstill traffic it’s almost impossible to enter the highway safely without the co-operation of vehicles on the highway. You can try to merge, but if no one’s letting you in or you try to force your way in, it could be a recipe for a collision.”
Or an exchange of gunfire.
Di Felice says that such courtesy also helps traffic flow better. If the guy on the expressway who jams his car up against the bumper in front of him to ensure no interlopers can enter would back off a bit, and if those on the ramp would reduce their speed, things would flow a lot better.
If we all approached these situations as if driving were a team sport we’d be better off. We might even get a friendly wave, which uses all five fingers, rather than that more pointed alternative.
This is the debut of Chris Zelkovich’s monthly column for Drive.
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