My Lane Is Better Than Your Lane

March 25, 2008

My daily commute is twenty-two miles, each way.  Except for several hundred yards downtown, between the exit ramp and the parking garage, and about a mile of surface streets in our neighborhood, all of that distance is done on Interstate highway.  The first five or six miles are two-lane, and the rest is at least three-lane.

What fascinates me are the dynamics of traffic ebb and flow; watching the cars around me as the jockey for "the best lane."  I'm not immune to changing lanes in order to gain an perceived advantage, but on those days when I don't change lanes I am always struck by the idea that I get home or to work just as quickly.

Take yesterday afternoon for example.  Just a mile or two into the drive traffic came to an abrupt halt.  First the far left lane slowed and stopped, while the center and right-hand lanes continued moving.  The center lane came to a halt a few seconds later, and the right-hand lane a few seconds after that.  Before the slow down occurred I was being overtaking by a red two-door Grand Prix.  When I put my brakes on, along with every car in front of me, the driver of the Grand Prix instantly swerved into the center lane.  She was able to advance perhaps two or three car lengths past me before that lane stopped as well.

Again she slalomed in to the still moving right-hand lane, this time causing a semi to sound his air horn in anger.  Not knowing what the cause of the traffic jamb was, I decided to stay in the left lane and creep ahead with everyone else.  Eventually, about two miles down the road, traffic resumed its normal pace.  There was no visible wreck or traffic stop, just one of those cases where something bunched traffic and caused a ripple a couple of miles deep.

When traffic started moving again I was only about two car lengths behind the red Grand Prix, which was again slam-dancing its way from the center lane to the right-hand lane - which promptly came to a halt in front of her.  After a couple of minutes, when we were all back up to speed, I saw the red Grand Prix in my review mirror once again.  The driver was visibly upset, shouting at me, swerving around in lane, wanting to go faster.

Being a nerd I have spent some of the hours I spend in traffic each week calculating the traffic density around me.  I use a length of 25 feet for each car, 50 for trucks and semis.  Normal traffic, heavy but still moving seems to be about 50 cars per mile of pavement.  That leaves roughly a car length of space between each vehicle.  Stop-and-go traffic is anything above that density, maybe 100 cars per mile of pavement.  After the jamb cleared yesterday afternoon, when the impatient driver was once again behind me, traffic was perhaps 25 cars per mile.  There were places where a two-car length gap existed, but for the most part there was no way to go any faster.

And yet this one driver was utterly beside herself to not being going faster.  Eventually she did move into the center lane and pass me.  I kept seeing her four or five cars ahead of me, often on her brakes, frequently changing lanes.  She exited the highway before I did, and I was once again even with her.

Except to merge onto the highway, and move over to the left lane, I never changed lanes the entire twenty miles home.  The hugely aggressive driver behind me changed lanes a dozen times or more that I saw, at least one time dangerously close to a huge truck.  And I was dead even with her when she exited the highway.

American's are indoctrinated with the idea that winners are good and losers are bad, and that everything is a contest.  Driving isn't a contest.  You can't win.  There will always be another red light, there will always be a car on the road ahead of  you.  I commute twenty-two miles in roughly 30-minutes twice a day, five days a week.  Even if I could go faster (i.e., no cars on the highway) I couldn't shorten the time by more than a minute or three.  The real savings is that my blood pressure lower, and I don't have unfocused anger against strangers.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.