Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Golden Rule of Commuting

Do you consider yourself a good driver?

I don't think I've ever encountered a person who claims to be anything but a good driver (except as a joke). Just as abundant, it seems, are the drivers who think everyone else on the freeway is a terrible driver. It reminds me of an old joke I heard about the mental capabilities of other drivers: if someone is driving slower than you, they're a moron, and if they're driving faster than you, they're a maniac.

Nevertheless, logic would indicate that there must be a high number of drivers who are self-proclaimed "good" drivers while simultaneously being judged by others as a "bad" driver.  Clearly there is a hint that most judgement in this scenario is highly subjective; when in the context of a driver's personal objective (getting from A to B as quickly as possible, or as fast with strict adherence to safety, for example), they are obviously performing well and anyone who gets in their way or otherwise impedes them must lack some large number of brain cells.  Rare indeed is it to regard another anonymous driver as a good driver... only, it seems, when they seem to be on the same page as the judger.

So we have an issue: traffic.  Traffic happens.  Sometimes there is a good reason: safety concerns.  Most of the time, however there is no apparent good reason.  Yet with everyone pointing biased fingers at their fellow commuters, and placing a halo above their own head, how can society hope to reach a solution?

Traffic is a problem for a commuter, such as myself (newly admitted into the ranks).  Eliminating or reducing traffic would obviously be beneficial to everyone... lower commute times, fewer headaches, and likely a safer commuting environment.  Hrmm... sounds like a market failure, doesn't it?  A perfect challenge for my utilitarian mind as it wanders during the half hour of sub-optimal commuting speeds to and from work each day.  

I call it "The Golden Rule (of Commuting)."

Before I get into the traffic specifics of The Golden Rule (we'll just call it that in this context), let me first explain some general basics about my utilitarian principles.  For one, they need to serve the ultimate purpose of solving the problem, and it needs to do it practically with as little hassle as possible.  Sure there are some ways to force less traffic (such as metering lights, which I don't think do anything useful), but those require a lot of government work which, of course, I am not in favor of.  After all those taxpayer dollars, who here says, "Well, thank god for these metering lights; otherwise there'd be a ton of traffic!"  I can assure you, no one who is in line for the metering lights thinks that.  I could explain more of the basic economic inefficiencies of metering lights, but for now, back to The Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule essentially states if you, a driver, are not in the far right lane, you must be gaining on or passing the car in front of you and in the lane to your right, or else you should move to the right a lane.

Simple, huh?  Notice I did not mention anything about the speed limit nor about the speed of traffic... the former is a government-imposed speed ceiling which quite honestly can be ignored for the purposes of this rule.  Note that I am not saying speed limits are not important, just that even if you are going the speed limit you are not immune to the rule; in other words, you can't sit in the left lane and be content going the speed limit.  You must qualify for the rule to be in the far left lane, otherwise, get over to the right cause you're slowing the rest of traffic behind you.

Speed of traffic is also implicit in the rule and thus irrelevant.  To be in a left lane, you must be going faster than the car that is in the lane to your right.  Once you pass that car, and there is no car to go faster than on your right, you are not fulfilling the rule of being in the left lane so you must get over to the right.  Going faster than the car you just passed no longer permits you to be in that left(er) lane; the rule is a constantly-refreshing rule that, when abided, will eliminate most forms of traffic or slower-moving mini-congestions.

So as I've said, immunity to the rule is not granted to people going the speed limit, nor to people going with the flow of traffic, nor to people who are in the carpool lane.  As a carpooler myself, this aspect of the rule can be particularly frustrating.  Just because you have two people in your car doesn't mean you're "entitled" to the carpool lane.  Consider the lane an extended left lane that you have access to while others do not, but you should still abide by The Golden Rule... if you are not passing the "non-carpool" lanes to your right, then (you guessed it) get the heck over, cause you're slowing down people behind you.

There is only one place to be safe: the right lane.  If a driver is unsure about how to proceed in a situation on the highway, moving to the right lane is always the perfect starting point.  From there a driver can assess the situation at hand while not being in the way of other drivers who may be driving at a faster speed.  If, from the right lane, it is determined that a pass need be made, a driver can move over into the faster left lane, complete the pass, then return to the right lane.

As I've said, all this is fairly simple and straightforward, can be applied at any and all times and on any multi-lane road, and should solve the problem of many traffic jams... the worst of which being the "wall," where four cars occupy the four lanes of a freeway and they are all going the same speed all in tandem.  Another contender could be the "box-in," where a car in the second fastest lane is in a semi-phalanx formation with the car in the far left lane... this formation is more meddlesome than a simple 2-car wall, as getting around this barrier is even more difficult, time consuming, aggravating and dangerous.  Both could be solved if everyone followed The Golden Rule.

So the next time you're out there driving somewhere, think about the rule.  Practice it yourself.  Notice how many of the frustrating driving scenarios that you witness on the road could be solved by uniform adherence to The Golden Rule.  Like all utilitarian concepts, The Golden Rule does not discriminate (no one is exempt) and everyone either benefits (can get where they're going faster) or remains indifferent (if they stay in the right lane).  Win-win, in my book.

I guess that's why I wrote it up.


Sarah g said...

actually, this happens to be one of my favorite topics in psychology :)


Anonymous said...

Your rule falls apart in cities with frequent exits/entrances. Most people will move to the right two lanes one or two exits before their own exit, completely clogging the lanes that people entering the freeway are trying to merge into.

So often the right two lanes will be completely clogged, going 40 mph, while the left two lanes will be completely empty.

Study river hydraulics to understand the turbulence/slowing caused when two fluid systems merge.

I remember being young and thinking that people should just move out of the way if they weren't going fast enough. After 25 years of driving, I've realized that if--in congested areas--we were all going similar speeds, and worked together to let traffic merge and exit, we'd all go faster collectively.

Bobby G said...

See now I don't think the rule falls apart in your scenario. People exiting will get to the right and will have to deal with slower speeds, but only for a moment. Those not exiting can either continue on in the right lane at the slower speed or get over to the left to pass.

Merging is an issue as you pointed out when people are not simply merging from a slower source on the right (like an onramp/offramp). However once the lanes are combined I don't see why the rule should stop applying... everything is scattered so some reorganization is required but shouldn't be too problematic. Assuming the rule was followed on the merge ramps it will be a bit easier as well.

Your solution at the end is reasonable but still inefficient... it ignores people who want to go faster than the single speed and still gives people who want to go slower complete control over the speed of everyone.

Thanks for posting though! I hope you check back and defend/attack again :).