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'Cheaters' who merge late are in the right, says AMA

Alberta Motor Association says 'zipper merge' is the best method to reduce traffic congestion

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A new study says traffic bottlenecks can be eased if drivers use the 'zipper merge' technique.

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We've all been there — you see an obstruction ahead that will close your lane, forcing you to move into another lane. But that lane is backed up and traffic is moving at a snail's pace.

Maybe your own response is to merge immediately into the bottleneck.

Then, out of the corner of your eye, you see a vehicle race all the way up the closed lane and pull in front of the first driver who's nice enough to let them in.

You curse and swear, furious at the "cheater." But what if the "cheaters" are actually correct in merging just before the lane closure?

The Alberta Motor Association says the "zipper merge" — when motorists use both lanes of traffic until the defined merge area, then alternate in zipper fashion into the open lane — is the recommended approach for fighting congested traffic.

Zipper Merge

This is the proper way to merge, according to the Alberta Motor Association. (AMA)

A report released Wednesday by the Canadian Automobile Association says bottlenecked traffic when the road narrows is the single biggest contributor to road delays — more so than construction, collisions and weather.

The study found the zipper merge to be the best way to mitigate bottlenecked traffic — decreasing congestion by as much as 40 per cent — but that's only if everyone follows the zipper.

"If we maximize that full use of two lanes until the point of merge, and then we're courteous as drivers to allow alternating vehicles through, that can really help reduce some of that congestion," said Jeff Kasbrick, vice-president of government and stakeholder relations at AMA.

Majority of Albertans drive to work

Statistics Canada figures show 83 per cent of Edmontonians drive to work. In Calgary, 77 per cent of the population drives to work.

The CAA report says congestion adds nearly 14 minutes to Edmontonians' commutes each day.

Deerfoot Trail Winter Calgary Traffic

Traffic along Calgary's Deerfoot Trail approaches a lane closure. The AMA says the 'zipper merge' is the best technique for traffic flow in such situations. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

The study cites a bottleneck on Gateway Boulevard between Whitemud Drive and 34th Avenue,which results in 92,000 hours of driver delay each year.

In Calgary, congestion adds an average 18 minutes a day to workers' commute times. The CAA study says the worst congestion is at a pair of Crowchild Trail bottlenecks — at 24th Avenue and between University Drive NW and Memorial Drive NW — which combine for 150,000 hours of driver delay.

Despite the congestion, Kasbrick says Alberta cities didn't land in the top 20 nationwide — those spots are reserved for Vancouver, Montreal and the Greater Toronto Area — but that doesn't mean Albertans are immune to congestion.

Not going to happen overnight

Changing drivers' attitudes and habits toward the zipper merge isn't going to happen overnight, and Kasbrick says he's aware of that. He knows what it feels like to sit in traffic while others drive ahead in the next lane.

But he said having conversations about the zipper merge and other ways to reduce congestion are necessary for drivers to start thinking about changing their behaviour.

"[We] recommend some positive behavioural changes that we might be able to consider when we're behind the wheel," he said.

And above all, he hopes the recommendations make Alberta's roads safer — and less congested.

"At the end of the day, we are part of a driving community," Kasbrick said. "We all have the same goal in mind when we get behind the wheel: to arrive home safe."

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