London traffic: City hall planning pitch to change how drivers handle lane mergers

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London motorists can kill with kindness – and city official are planning a controversial campaign to combat it.

When drivers approach a construction zone and two lanes are reduced to one, most Londoners try to merge early, well before the closing lane ends. And while that may seem like a very Canadian approach to sharing the roads, those polite intentions backfire.

Traffic research since 2004 has generally shown that when motorists merge early, overall traffic slows and the risk of collisions increases, said Shane Maguire, who looks after traffic control for city hall.

The better way to merge is for cars in the closing lane to use it right until the end, where motorists from that lane and the open lane should alternate moving ahead, a practice that some call zipper merging.

But while the science is pretty clear, convincing London motorists to do the right thing won’t be so easy.

City officials gave a teaser of their plans at a Canada 150 celebration but motorists were skeptical. “People had a good chuckle,” Maguire said. “The feeling was that those who use (the merging lane) were cheating.

“It’s a mindset to get over . . . We are Canadians and we are polite to a fault,” Maguire said. “But we are better off merging (late) at the site of construction. You’re using the space more efficiently.”

If motorists wait to merge where one lane ends, traffic will move past construction sites efficiently because all available lane space will be utilized, he said.

Such a change will not only lessen traffic jams, it will reduce collisions, he said. That’s because dangers are created when most motorists try to merge early:

*As the queue of traffic in the open lane grows far longer, the risk of rear-end collisions increases.

*The few remaining vehicles in the closing lane travel at far faster speeds than motorists in the long queue in the open lane, and that difference in speed can cause crashes.

*Since ever motorist may try to merge at a different point rather than just where a lane closes, that creates unpredictable driving that increases the risk of a crash.

The London campaign will have two fronts — one roadside, and the other digital. Officials will place signs that show the correct way to merge at a construction site not yet selected, and will also launch an online campaign to educate motorists that will include posters and a video, Maguire said.

“It’s something we plan to implement this year,” he said. “Initially, the plan was to go out a little earlier but the plan was delayed.”

The push to change how London motorists merge is part of a broader effort by city hall to reduce serious collisions and traffic fatalities on local streets, a project called London Vision Zero. Other components of the project include recently installed red light cameras, the creation of 83 crosswalks this year and last year and a renewed campaign against speeding on residential streets.

London will become the latest city across North America to push motorists to use zipper merging, and the experience elsewhere shows that bad driving habits don’t die easily.

In June, the City of Windsor placed zipper-merge signs on the E. C. Row Expressway to convince local drivers to adopt the superior merging method, but officials there noted that a similar effort in 2009 failed. “(The 2009 campaign) was not that successful, to be quite honest. It was just the driving habits of the people — trying to break them was problematic,” Dwayne Dawson, Windsor’s director of operations, told Postmedia.

A key in London will be to convince drivers that where one lane ends, vehicles from that lane and the open land should alternate, much as vehicles do at a four-way stop. “You’re not hurting yourself by letting the other person go,” Maguire said.

It was a 2004 study by the Virginia Transportation Research Council that helped popularize the notion that zipper merging helped with the flow of traffic, and many studies since have supported that notion. Zipper merging gained a greater foothold in Canada after the Alberta Motor Association endorsed it.

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