Can a Driver be too Courteous?

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared as an NMA E-Newsletter #316 in February 2015. If you would like to receive the NMA E-Newsletter every Sunday in your inbox, subscribe HERE.

Can a single driver influence the actions of an entire freeway full of cars? Maybe a better question is should a single driver exert such influence? Ask yourself that question as you watch the seven-minute video below.

The driver describes how he can “wipe out” traffic jams and reduce stop-and-go traffic in the video. We’re all familiar with rolling traffic jams that ripple through rush hour traffic as cars slow down and then speed up, seemingly for no reason. The driver absorbs the wave by allowing plenty of following distance and maintaining a steady (and seemingly slow) speed. By serving as a blocker for traffic behind him, he claims to smooth out traffic flow and make everyone’s drive a little easier. This approach reminds us of Colorado’s dubious experimentation with “rolling speed harmonization,” which was supposed to relieve weekend ski traffic congestion on narrow mountain highways.

Credit: Jeffrey Beall

Likewise, he describes his fix for traffic jams that occur as drivers are forced to merge due to construction and lane closures. He keeps a wide gap in front of him, allowing other vehicles in before they reach the front of the line and have to merge at the last minute. He calls those people “cheaters” (perhaps a little tongue in cheek) but points out that the reason they zip to the front before merging is because nobody will let them into the through lane.

He correctly identifies the competitive driving ethos that permeates our daily commutes, and he seems sincere in wanting to change it. But is he going about it in the right way? The video doesn’t show what’s going on behind him. He’s camped in the left lane, and we see many cars buzzing by him on the right. Who’s to say things wouldn’t be better if he simply practiced Lane Courtesy by staying to the right and letting faster traffic pass on the left?

In addition, his efforts to coax other drivers to merge early run counter to the zipper merge, which dictates that merging drivers should stay in their lane until the merge point.

Our driver seems thoughtful and well-intentioned. His notions about fostering cooperation, not competition, are on-target. But what about his execution? Is he being too courteous? Is he promoting road rage? Let us know what you think by commenting below or on the NMA Facebook page.

Check out these additional driver courtesy resources from the NMA.

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One Response to “Can a Driver be too Courteous?”

  1. Steve C. says:

    There is merit to the theory about smoothing out the wave by one driver regulating speed but the example in the video doesn’t represent the correct opportunity to attempt this since all lanes are flowing adequately. Where this works is when all lanes are in a constant flux of stop-and-go traffic where lane courtesy issues don’t come into play. This theory has been proven by controlled experiments with autonomous vehicles that showed that just a few autonomous vehicles regulating their speed to keep in motion and not come to a stop allows the rest of the traffic to maintain a more steady flow instead of stop-and-go.

    I’ve tried on occasion to do this manually to avoid using the brakes. Instead of speeding up when traffic starts moving in my lane and then slowing down and often stopping, I regulate my speed to keep moving, often without using brakes. It does smooth out the flow behind you since traffic becomes less prone to stopping. It is more satisfying and efficient to keep moving.