News: Deferential drivers make traffic jams 20% longer

"After you, sir"

Traffic news story

MANNERS MAKETH the jam: overly polite British drivers are creating traffic snarl-ups, according to research that will come as a surprise to motorists more used to bemoaning the lack of etiquette on the road.

The findings are based on the fact that British drivers appear to follow a herd mentality when confronted with traffic jams, especially those caused by roadworks where one or more lanes are closed. When told that the lanes ahead are shut, drivers begin to merge too early because they don’t want to appear to be pushing in by merging later. This reduces road capacity and makes the jam up to 20% longer than if drivers merged more gradually right up to the last minute.

“The majority of drivers, when confronted with roadworks ahead, quickly move into the nearside lane as early as possible rather than merge at the front of the queue,” says Guy Walker, associate professor in human factors at Heriot-Watt University’s Institute for Infrastructure and Environment. “No one wants to be seen by fellow drivers as the type of person who pushes in. This behaviour, however, leads to the loss of a further lane of capacity that’s in addition to the ones already closed because of roadworks.

“People are self-conscious: if everyone else is merging early, you become extremely reluctant to do something different. Behaviour such as this is contagious, [but it makes] congestion, anxiety and frustration worse.”

Walker carried out the research for the Scottish Road Research Board and SIAS Transport Planners, a traffic simulation company. He was also asked to look at solutions for easing the frustration caused by jams. One was to post estimated waiting times on electronic signs along the route of the snarl-up — as some amusement parks do — to resolve drivers’ uncertainty over how long they would have to wait.


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