It's true what the romantics say. You never forget your first time. I can remember mine like it was yesterday.
It was late July, 1982, on a bright, sunny summer's day. My hands were placed just right, my eyes were open, and my right foot pressed down firmly but gently upon the appropriate surface. Luckily, a helpful elderly man was on hand to talk me through the entire experience. I recall thinking, "This is it!" as I entered the gateway that would bring me to my coveted goal. My heart raced. It felt like entering hyper-speed. Suddenly I was lost in a sea of people hell-bent on reaching their respective destinations.
Yes, that was the first time I merged on to the freeway.
The moment had been much anticipated. "Merging on to the freeway" had been my ultimate test since the first day of driver's education (a test so daunting that it was immortalized in the 1995 movie Clueless ). Merging symbolized the final stages of earning one's driver's licence. Over the course of six weeks, I'd graduated from side streets to main streets and now I was ready for high speeds and snap decisions. This was, in many ways, a benchmark in my maturation into an adult. Did I have what it took?
Happily, it all worked out. With my driving instructor by my side, I made it onto the freeway, kept speed with traffic and exited without incident. The lessons I learned stuck with me. Get up to speed quickly, check your mirrors for cars behind you but keep an eye on the cars in front of you. Watch your blind spot. Get your signal on. Watch for other drivers' body language, merge quickly, and try to keep two or three seconds of braking time between you and the vehicle in front. Merge in a smooth gradual movement. Whatever you do, don't stop cold on the on ramp.
It was a lot to take in. Merging on to the freeway is one of the most intimidating manoeuvres a driver, especially a young driver, can make. I am reminded of this fact every time I encounter a motorist who appears to have skipped that day of driver's ed. In fact, it's rare to take a trip in the fast lane without encountering frightening behaviour. It's a strange phenomenon, because, unless your trip ends in a fiery explosion, each time you use a freeway you must both get on and off it. That's one "merge" and one "de-merge."
So why are so many motorists so bad – dangerously bad – at merging into fast traffic?
Some are terrified. They believe that all the other drivers on the road are trying to get them. They envision an army of angry motorists blazing by. These slow pokes crawl into traffic. Sometimes their nerve fails entirely. You can see these drivers – stranded – stuck at a complete stop on the median with their turn signal blinking helplessly.
The slow poke's bizzaro twin is the driver who merges using the same guts as a NASCAR driver with none of the skill or smarts. He simply flicks on his blinker, puts foot to pedal and swerves into traffic. His mirrors get so little use they have dust caked on them. As far as this driver is concerned he has the right of way, in other words he has the right to be in everyone else's way. The NASCAR merger rarely stops at a single lane. After all, as long as he has his turn indicator light on, why not drive diagonally across three lanes?
Of course, those already on the freeway often make things worse. The merge lanes on our highways seem fairly short. You find yourself merging into traffic through the same lane that other drivers are using to merge out. As you try to merge, other drivers accelerate to cut you off. Usually these flyboys are passing on the right-hand side, trying to get around the snail-express of the middle lane.
The worst offenders are members of the last-minute club. They've been too busy texting or downing coffee to pay attention to where they are going. Then, at the last minute, it occurs to them that their exit is coming up in 1.2 seconds. So, without hesitation, they swerve across traffic, cutting everyone off, and exit the freeway. As they leave, every other driver on the road has a moment to contemplate their near-death experience.
Where there are cars, there is irony. I find mine daily. Once upon a time my heart raced as I merged on to the freeway – speed awaited. Today? I merge into a parking lot. The freeway often moves so slowly you may as well start learning there and graduate on to side streets.
Follow Andrew Clark on Twitter: @aclarkcomedy