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Sep 22, 2016 02:53PM

Just zip it: Good or bad, zipper merging works

By Julie Stamper
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Todd Mizener/tmizener@qconline.com
In this 2015 photo, Iowa-bound traffic on Interstate 74 was backed up past Avenue of the Cities. Embracing the zipper method can alleviate problems like this during road construction season.
More photos from this shoot
With construction season coming to a close, and the building of the Interstate 74 bridge seemingly scheduled to end in 4040, it's time we have "the talk." I know that it makes us all a little uncomfortable, and affronts our Midwestern values, but we need to discuss the zipper method.

In the Quad-Cities, signage on the Iowa side of the I-74 Bridge urged drivers to "use caution," while the Illinois side of the bridge encouraged drivers to use two lanes and merge at the point, aka the zipper. While the bridge was down to one lane in each direction, I noticed that the Iowa side often was backed up for miles while the Illinois side seemed to move faster.

The zipper method seems simple: drivers use two lanes until you can't use two lanes any more, then drivers alternate every-other-car, and merge into one lane. The challenge with the zipper method lies in the fact that everyone needs to cooperate for it to work.

In an Associated Press story, Dwight Hennessy, a psychology professor at Buffalo State College in New York who specializes in traffic psychology, says Midwesterners tend to be polite and follow the rules — even unwritten ones — and get upset when others don't.

"When a rule is being violated by someone else, it frustrates us, it irritates us, it makes us angry," Hennessy says in the story. "We expect everyone else to follow the rules, and when they don't and we know they're getting an advantage, it ticks us off."

Don't get me wrong — I've been the angry motorist who thinks the cars passing by in the open lane are breaking the rules by "cutting" in front of everyone. But once I embraced the zipper method, those feelings all went away.

I use the I-74 bridge at least twice each day, so I've had time to observe a few things. First, people are very animated in their cars. There is a lot of the shaking of heads and gesturing of hands and craning of necks. Neck craning is usually accompanied by large, unbelieving eyes.

Second, people can do a lot while driving. Breakfasts are eaten, coffees are sipped, iPhones are used, papers are read — it's like we're all driving in a slow-moving breakfast nook.

Third, some people just refuse to let other people get in front of them. I don't know if it's because some people are competitive by nature, or if people think they have a right to premium road position, but some of those drivers would rather tap the bumper of a state trooper in front of them than let someone in.

A fourth phenomenon of note during construction: The Straddler. This is the motorist who either doesn't know about the zipper, or doesn't understand it, so they use their vehicle as a device to impede the travel of the zipper mergers. Not only am I concerned about the safety of moving one's vehicle in front of another to stop them, but I'm fascinated by the psyche of the person driving the straddler. They literally own the road.

Missouri, Kansas, Minnesota and Washington have adopted the zipper method as the official way of merging traffic. According to The Associated Press, Minnesota seems to be struggling the most with its inner traffic etiquette adviser. The state began promoting the zipper merge in the early 2000s, and first called it the "dynamic late merge." That used a method similar to what Iowa and Illinois use now, where traffic signs use sensors to determine when traffic is becoming congested and turn on messages advising drivers when to merge.

After a couple of name and system changes, in 2011, Minnesota transportation officials launched a campaign to educate drivers about how the merge works.

Regardless of what it's called, this writer believes in the zipper method. The next time you're in traffic, and you come up to a construction zone, feel OK about driving up in the second lane until the merge point. Smile and wave at other drivers, and treat them the way you want to be treated.

If we adopt the zipper method, we can all get along, move more efficiently in traffic, and know that we aren't as confused as other states. And that, my friends, we can put in the "win" column.

Julie Stamper is a regular Radish contributor.

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