We have all been there. The other day, I found myself dutifully inching along in the right-hand lane that leads to the freeway entrance, waiting for that moment when we can finally stop riding the brakes and get moving down the road. And, then, some wise guy zips along in the center lane and squeezes in just before the freeway entrance. Or a whole series of wise guys. Well, there I was, and I caught myself playing the game – keeping as close as possible to the car in front of me so as to eliminate any possibility of creating a merge point for one of the people trying to avoid the wait that the rest of us responsible citizens had endured. I found myself gripping the steering wheel a bit tighter, leaning forward a bit, my blood pressure rising with the tension.
Ordinarily, I try to avoid that behavior. Honestly. Most days, I recognize that the fractions of a second that I save by staying one car length ahead of the interloper amount to very little compared to the stress that accompanies my success. Most days, I’d just as soon pay more attention to NPR and let everyone else get worked up. But not always. Sometimes, I catch myself joining the crowd, losing touch with my rational side and fighting for those fractional seconds. I am reminded on such occasions of a lesson I learned from a mechanical engineer once while driving him to the Ontario, California airport. As we fought through the routine heavy traffic, with the stream of vehicles speeding up and coming to a complete stop at regular intervals, I expressed my surprise that people could not just keep moving along at a consistent pace. The engineer explained something called queuing theory, which makes it virtually impossible for any large body of objects (cars, marbles, fish, you name it) to move through a constrained space at a consistent speed. It is a complicated mathematical theory that I am neither equipped nor inclined to explain in detail, but, essentially, the point is that imperfections in the process will result in changes in the velocity of individual elements of the group, to which the remaining elements must respond. In the case of freeway traffic, the imperfection might be a pothole that causes one car to minutely reduce speed or veer slightly. Cars behind that one will react, usually by braking slightly, and the effect is the inevitable speed-up, slow-down cycle we all love so much. Given the constraints of the system, it is going to happen no matter what any individual driver does, so there is no point getting all worked up about it. All you can do is identify the system constraints (e.g., number of lanes) and attempt to correct them. But, even then, given a sufficient volume of traffic, the phenomenon will occur.
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By: Dennis Kiker