Sure “driving etiquette during rush hour” sounds like an oxymoron, and it is, particularly because we're focusing on Massachusetts, the land of rotaries, colonial era highways, missing stop signs, and aggressive personalities. The challenges of getting to work over an infrastructure originally designed for horses make adherence to the informal rules of the road a necessity to keep traffic flowing, plus avoids flashed middle fingers, blown horns, and insults screamed by teenagers with their heads hanging out the window.
Being aware of these unwritten rules is very important:
Speed limit signs in Massachusetts exist for only two reasons—to determine the size of the fine if you get a speeding ticket, and to provide a rough calculation of how fast you can actually drive without risking a ticket. During rush hour the posted speed has nothing to do with how fast you should drive. Even if you are driving in the slow lane, going the posted speed of 55 mph during rush hour is only slightly less dangerous than backing up. No one expects you to go that slow. Go at least 60, preferably 65.
In the fast lane during rush hour, the actual speed limit is the speed of the car in front of you. If the speed limit is 65 and the car in front of you is going 85, then you have to go 85 too. If not, move to the middle lane when a car approaches from behind because you’re blocking traffic.
To determine the speed you should drive in the travel lane on a highway, add 15 to the posted speed for speeds of 55 and higher. For slower speeds, add 10, except for school zones. There the speed limit is what’s posted, usually 20 mph if the light is blinking.
We’ve all run a yellow light, just barely making through before it turned red. Then we look behind us to make sure no police are following, and see that 4 more cars followed us through. Massachusetts should be the first state in the US to pioneer orange lights, appearing briefly between yellow and red. Orange would mean “this time you’d really better stop”. In the meantime, make it through if possible, and whatever you do don’t change your mind or you’ll get rear ended.
Forget about that rule of one car length for every ten miles of speed. It’s impossible……if you leave two car lengths, someone will butt in front of you. If you actually left five or six car lengths, people will think your car stalled or you’d died behind the wheel. There’s actually an art to tailgating in rush hour traffic—it’s how to judge if a driver is a Rembrandt or just a poseur creating ‘refrigerator’ art. An artist hangs just the exact distance behind the car in front of them to prevent anyone cutting in, while leaving as much safety margin as possible. A rude driver hangs too close to the bumper of the car in front of him, despite there being no chance whatsoever to pass; while the timid driver, vainly trying to keep the proper safe distance from the car in front, allows cars to constantly cut in front of him.
Remember—people are tribal, and we form tribes easily and fluidly. When you are in a lane, the entire lane behind you is your tribe. Your goal is to help your tribe advance, by not allowing members of other tribes to cut in. However, we adapt quickly. After three seconds the driver who cut in is now OK, so forget about him.
This situation usually occurs because of accidents or roadwork, typically consisting of a few miles of orange cones and one or two personnel leaning on shovels drinking coffee while waiting until 10 or so to start working. The goal in this situation is to get through the mess as quickly as possible while not being rude. It’s a fine line, and it varies based on whether two or three lanes are merging into one lane. We’ll look at the three lane situation first:
The first question is always “what lane to be in?” Let’s say it’s a big backup of a mile or so. There’s an old adage that “the other lane always moves faster”, but that’s really not true. However it’s definitely situational, so these are the general rules of etiquette mixed with practicality:
• Far away from the merge point, the far right ‘slow’ lane is usually fastest. That’s because most people don’t drive in that lane. Paradoxically, the left ’fast’ lane is often the slowest, as most people in rush hour are in that lane when they hit the backup. You need to be aware, however, of merging traffic from on ramps, which slows down the right lane. To avoid this pitfall, keep a watch for big trucks in the middle lane, which typically move at a steady speed, leaving big gaps ahead of them for brief periods of time. When you approach an on ramp, get in front of a big truck until you are past the ramp.
• When it becomes apparent which lanes will be closed, get into that lane since all the conservative (AKA slow) drivers will immediately attempt to get out of those lanes because they don’t want to have to merge in up at the merge point. For instance, if the left lane(s) are closing ahead, in a half mile or so, get into the left lanes. Those lanes will speed up as you get closer to the merge point.
• Here’s where the ‘fine line’ comes in. For speed, your best bet is to get right up to the merge point and cut in front of everyone. There’s really no way anyone can stop you if you just butt in, but you’ll make a lot of people mad and you’ll definitely qualify as a rude 'Masshole'. To get the best of both worlds, merge into the middle lane about an eighth of a mile from the merge point. You’ve made up a lot of ground but you won’t stand out as having pushed the limits of etiquette too far. Then drive close to the middle line, and don't let anyone else cut in. You've joined a different tribe.
• Now you are essentially in a two lane merge situation, so you now must handle it based completely on etiquette. At the merge point take turns—a car from one lane goes, then a car from the other lane goes. It’s neat, clean and civilized. However, there is a duty here as well—you need to make sure no one abuses their turn. You drive right near the bumper of the car in front of you, as if no one is possibly going to get in between you and the lead car, but then at the last moment you back off and politely allow exactly one car from the other lane to go ahead of you. Now follow that car closely to avoid some second car deviant from the other lane trying to sneak in.
There is a reason rotaries haven’t been built since the 1950s—although there are some specific rules, mainly that traffic in the rotary always has the right of way, in reality the rules for rotaries are a lot like the rules for a knife fight: There aren’t any. The basic guiding principle for a rotary is to get in and then out without having or causing an accident, since that will block traffic which is very impolite. In a rotary, ‘he who hesitates is lost’, or at least doomed to make multiple trips around the rotary. In particular, be prepared to move fast and keep going, as if you stop unexpectedly you are very likely to end up with a big dent in your rear bumper.
Here etiquette is very clear. If you have the right of way, take it. If you have a moment of weakness and let someone out in heavy traffic because they are too timid to get out onto the road themselves, you’ll be kicking yourself for miles because they’ll drive the same way, leaving a huge gap in front of them and the other lane drivers will be constantly cutting in.
Even in light traffic, if you have the right of way, take it. This has happened to all of us--you are sitting there, waiting to take a left turn onto a main road, and there is a gap in traffic both ways. Then suddenly someone slows down and stops in the far lane and waves you out, looking pleased with themselves for being polite. Sure you can go now but you have to hurry, while if they’d just kept going you’d have already been on your way.
Traffic going down a highway is like water in a stream…….it all flows smoothly unless there’s too much traffic or a log falls into the water. Then everything backs up. The physics is almost exactly the same...a lane goes faster, cars move into it, and it then slows down. It’s entropy.
On the open road cars are like geese or gazelles—they “flock” so as to avoid those lions of the highway, state police. It’s rare you see a solitary car come flying by at 90 mph on an interstate, and if you do, good—they’ll get the ticket so you can speed a bit more. Usually it’s a flock of speeding cars, and just like in the wild, it’s usually the straggles at the back that get bagged. There is definitely safety in numbers.
Don’t type texts while driving…..get off your lazy duff and learn how to use Siri. But, don’t neglect proofreading-- at the next complete stop proofread your work because autocorrect can wreak havoc on your life. That text to your buddy about last nights Red Sox game—“that bullpen is screwed” can easily be misinterpreted by Siri to be something else entirely, with the potential to land you in marriage counseling. Check out the site Damnyouautocorrect.com. It's R rated and very funny.
Also, download and use the Waze App—it’s like a social media forum for avoiding road obstacles, including police. There are millions of users, and when they see a police car or roadkill or whatever, they log it….it’s already saved me from potential traffic tickets, it’s free, and it's not illegal, like a radar detector, in CT. Beware however--left on, Waze uses up a lot of data, so don't forget to "put it to sleep".
Copyright Crow Hill Associates, LLC; which is solely responsible for the contents of this article.