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Gridlock Guy: Your craftiness behind the wheel may only be making things worse

We are upon the busiest time of year on the Atlanta roads. The height of the spring and fall semesters understandably sees the most delays, as schools and activities are in full swing. The heavier the volume is, the worse the consequences are when drivers make mistakes. A recent New York Times article summarized some common driving habits and how they cause unnecessary delays.

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Columnist Malia Wollan talked to Northwestern University professor of transportation engineering Hani Mahmassani and garnered several helpful tips for drivers to deploy. These tips not only help the driver, but also make the whole ecosystem flow better.

And that is where we should begin. Driving solo psychologically dupes us into anti-ecosystem behavior. As author Tom Vanderbilt explained in his 2009 book, “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do,” we react at and against people in traffic like we never would if they cut us off in a grocery store line, because layers of steel and glass separate us and put us in our own bubbles. If we simply drove with more courtesy — more give and take — everything would flow better. And we would have the added benefit of being better humans.

Mahmassani told Wollan that a first step a driver should take is by avoiding lanes with big rigs in them, because those semis cannot accelerate as quickly. That is easier said than done in Atlanta, as tractor trailers dot just about every lane on our freeways. Mahmassani also advises simply staying out of the right lane, as that is where most merging and exiting occurs.

When making that lane change (this may seem like common sense), don’t just meander into the lane. Try to accelerate to a speed as fast, if not faster, than than the cars approaching in the new lane. Causing others to slow down actually amplifies the delay several cars back, in an effect called “shock wave,” Wollan said.

But even in doing so the correct way, the act of changing lanes itself creates more traffic. This friction builds on itself, as others react to the delays in front of them by either braking hard or changing lanes themselves. Transportation engineers, including Mahmassani, tend to say that holding your line — staying in your lane — is the best policy for all traffic moving better.

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This is a problem that autonomous driving technology hopes to alleviate. By eliminating the human element, driverless vehicles can communicate with each other and only make objective decisions. If these cars hold their lines, traffic will move better. Without fallible humans, these cars can even run right in front of and behind each other, creating more capacity on the roads. But the bugs haven’t been worked out of these vehicles just yet and the cost is too high for every person to scrap their car for a new one. So the ball is back in our court.

One final tip may be the most obvious — but people just need to get going. Whether rubberneckers slow for no reason to look at the first set of police lights they have ever seen or Georgia drivers are illegally checking their phones when traffic stops, we all need to simply commute more decisively. Call it smooth urgency. Have awareness of your surroundings. If people are bottling up behind you, speed up or change lanes. The less abrupt and erratic the maneuver, the more smoothly traffic will flow. The faster one gets back to the gas when traffic starts moving, the less the delays will be behind them.

These traffic tips may seem so common sense that they are patronizing. But people, including me, violate them all the time. As Wollan said, we should drive as if part of a formation of geese. Stay in line and keep moving. Deviations cause delays. We may zig and zag to give ourselves the perception that we are making up time, but we often are not. Holding our line and being less crafty could go further than we think to making our commutes better.

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Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.