GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Andrew Anglin considers himself a pretty relaxed guy who can find common ground with most people.
But after vigilante lane blockers tried to cut him off on US-131 this week, he was frustrated enough to reach out to 24 Hour News 8.
“Please, for the love of all that is holy, do a spot on the ZIPPER MERGE,” Anglin wrote in an email to 24 Hour News 8.
“Too many people think they’re being polite by merging MILES before the lanes are closed. All this does is create longer traffic backups. WORSE, self-appointed traffic police, who don’t understand the problem, actively ENDANGER others by aggressively blocking off lanes to prevent people from using a lane that is STILL OPEN.”
Anglin, a West Michigan high school teacher, was headed to work on Southbound US-131 Wednesday morning when he came upon a temporary lane closure due to an accident or disabled vehicle.
“In Michigan, people are polite and as soon as they see a lane closed – they like to move over and leave an entire lane open that could be used,” he said.
Anglin, however, is accustomed to using the increasingly encouraged zipper merge technique, where drivers utilize all open lanes until a single point at which time they take turns merging into the open lane.
“Being on my way to work and not wanting to be late, I decided to do what I’m supposed to do which is the zipper merge,” Anglin recalled.
That’s when two aggressive lane blockers tried to cut Anglin off.
“I just kind of went around using some of the shoulder for one of them, but the semi, he was really going to force me into the wall, he was really aggressive about it…. I was a little put off, and I was also put in danger,” Anglin said.
Anglin reached out to 24 Hour News 8 not to complain, but to raise awareness of the zipper merge.
“I’m not the jerk. I’m not jumping the line. I’m just using the road that’s available to me and we all can use that road that’s available and we’ll all get there a little more quickly.”
24 Hour News 8 took a ride with the Michigan Department of Transportation to find out the agency’s take on the issue.
“It’s not a Michigan law that you have to move over immediately once a backup starts,” said Nate Van Drunen, a construction engineer with MDOT.
John Richard, communications representative with MDOT, agreed.
“There’s no state law that says you have to get over, so if there are available lanes to use, it’s not a bad idea to use those lanes because… if you use both lanes, if you’ve got a hundred cars, you’re going to have a 50-car backup instead of a hundred car back up,” Richard explained.
Still, both MDOT representatives agreed that Michigan drivers tend to get over as soon as possible.
“It’s definitely a very strong mindset that people have, and the zipper merge is a major change in mindset,” Van Drunen said.
It’s a change that other states are promoting heavily through YouTube videos and radio ads.
“Everyone has strong feelings about how to drive, especially merging correctly,” said Minnesota’s State Traffic Engineer Sue Growth in a YouTube video.
“We’re going to tell you about the zipper merge, the correct, safe and polite way to merge within construction zones,” Growth said.
The Michigan Department of Transportation has also highlighted zipper merges in recent years, a technique it’s employed in several construction zone projects.
Right now, MDOT has designated a construction-zone lane closure on Eastbound I-96 near Leonard as a zipper merge site.
There are changeable message boards clearly stating “use both lanes”, as well as a sign saying, “merge here,” at the merge point.
“That was impressive,” Van Drunen said after driving through the I-96 zipper merge in the heart of morning rush hour Thursday. “Everybody stayed moving, people were merging at the point, and although we weren’t traveling fast, we kind of stayed at a consistent speed.”
Zipper merges are safer because they help maintain traffic flow and cut down on stationary backups.
“If everyone’s in one lane and then you have some of those guys shooting up faster in the other lane and then merging in at all different points in the queue, it creates that stop and go, stop and go, as well as a speed differential.”
Long backups and differing speeds increase the risk of accidents.
But MDOT stopped short of advising drivers to employ the zipper merge in lane closures the agency has not designated as such.
“It’s not going to work for every location every time,” Van Drunen said.
In a paper published by the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the author explained how the “Late Merge,” while helpful when traffic is heavy and slow, can increase risk under “high-speed, low-volume” conditions.
“When there is no congestion and speeds are high, potential confusion among drivers at the merge point becomes a concern,” wrote the paper’s author, Patrick T. McCoy.
Still, even if signage does not designate a construction zone as a zipper merge site, MDOT officials said there’s nothing wrong with drivers using both lanes if they can — like Anglin did on Wednesday morning.
“You do want to stay with that little bit of flow before you (merge) in because I do know that less of a backup is better,” Van Drunen said.
But he also acknowledged that he personally moves over fairly early on.
“I’ll stay with the flow of traffic but as people start to get into one lane I will typically do that as well just because that feels like the courteous thing to do, but that’s definitely not legally necessary to do that.”
The bottom line is that drivers should merge with extreme caution whenever it’s safest and most practical to do so based on traffic patterns.
What’s also very clear – it’s definitely not legal to take the law into your own hands and try to block the open lane.
“That only increases road rage and danger,” Richard said.
Anglin was able to avoid the aggressive lane blockers and make it to school safely.
Now, he’s hoping his willingness to speak up will help educate other drivers that merging early isn’t always the only or best choice.
“I really just want people to know that there’s another way to do things,” Anglin said.