Big City Driver
Preventing Traffic Jams and Road Rage, One Driver at a Time

Bottleneck - a Users Guide

Why is it that whenever two lanes merge and become one, there is always a traffic jam? A.k.a. Bottleneck?

The Marriam-Webster Dictionary describes a Bottleneck as; 1- a narrow passage or point of congestion. or 2- something that obstructs or impedes. I say that it is all of the above. A Bottleneck is a narrow passage AND point of congestion that obstructs AND impedes! Some people say a Bottleneck is simply the layout of the road, when two lanes merge and become one. But, when police officers, safety experts, truck drivers and even traffic reporters are talking about a Bottleneck, they are talking about a traffic jam.

A traffic jam, that occurs when two or more lanes merge. And too many drivers try to merge at the last second. It's really a little more complicated than that though. Because a real traffic jam, that is when the highway actually stops, is usually caused by a chain of events.

Of course, if a big log fell across the road and blocked it, that might be a single event that caused a traffic jam, but I am talking about a traffic jam that happens for no apparent reason. The traffic is rolling along just fine well ahead of you, but the traffic directly in front of you is stopping. Which causes a knee-jerk reaction. And a chain reaction.

  The series of events usually goes something like this; 
1- Someone is trying to merge at the last second because he is in a hurry and he doesn't want to loose a second of his precious time (maybe he is bleeding to death, but that's another story). Then,
2- Someone else, who is following too close to the car in front of him (probably bleeding to death too, from his head, because he is starting to think that if he gets another foot closer, he will get there sooner), suddenly realizes that he has to slow down to let this first guy in. Then,
3- The next guy, who wants to merge at the last second too (he's not bleeding to death, he's just late for bowling), tries to squeeze in behind the guy who is stepping on his brakes. Then,
4- The guy who was tailgating him has to really stop hard, but just before he comes to a complete stop, he decides to switch lanes. And,
5- Now the whole highway is coming to a complete stop.

And all because of a few people in a hurry, who just happened to be next to each other.

This illustration, which happens everyday, is a good example of why it is important to leave room for error. 
  Ok, now that we know what causes a bottleneck (merging at the last second, tailgating, and trying to go faster than the flow of traffic), let's discuss how to prevent them from happening.

The trick is, to visualize the flow of traffic, as a whole, and drive at or just below the average speed. You can't see the flow of traffic if you are within fifty feet of the car in front of you. Or one hundred feet if there is a truck in front of you. You need to see well ahead, otherwise you wont see it.

Once you can see the true flow of traffic, that is, the average speed of everybody around you, you will then begin to notice who is trying to drive faster than the flow. These are the ones who will cause a bottleneck and mess it up for all of us, if we're not careful.  Give them room because they are coming anyway. If you try to contain them, then you are starting that chain of events.

Sometimes, when there is a bottleneck happening, I will see a truck staying back in the lane that is ending. His intent is right.   He understands that all of these cars that are trying to squeeze through are just going to cause a bottleneck. And he is trying to teach them that they might as well prepare to merge now, instead of trying to cram it in at the last second, making everyone stop. However, you can get a ticket for that.(Obstructing traffic). I know, it's not fair, but that's the law. And unfortunately, the real culprits will be getting away. 

What we really need is more help from the police, writting tickets for merging at the last second and tailgating. Unfortunately, merging at the last second, is not against the law. But, you could call it obstructing traffic. That is what they are doing. And tailgating, is not only dangerous, it is one of the main causes of bottlenecks and traffic jams. And when you give a ticket to one of these me-first people, you should explain what a bottleneck is, and how they are the cause of it. And hopefully they will learn something.

This problem will probably get worse before it gets better. I think what it will really take to nip bottlenecks in the bud, is people telling people. If you know someone who has to be five feet from the car in front of him to feel like he is getting somewhere, explain to him that it doesn't matter if you're five feet or fifty feet from the car ahead of you, you aren't going to get there any sooner if you get closer. And for people who have to merge at the last second, tell them to learn math. Passing a few more cars, that are probably going to exit soon anyway, doesn't save you any more time than the time it takes to drive a few car lengths. And tell them that it is not worth making the whole highway stop, just because they want to pass a couple of cars that are probably getting off at the next exit anyway.

Drivers Ed never taught us anything about bottlenecks. And that is why we have them. People just don't know. It's not their fault, it's just that nobody ever explained that to them before. So, would you? Please?

Save this article and pass it on to someone who needs it.

Ken Skaggs


Ten Keys to Safe City Driving
(Now available on Video & MP3!)

10 Keys to Safe City Driving CD Cover

1. Understand Traffic Waves
2. Prevent Traffic Jams
3. Stay Calm
4. Do The Math
5. Be Predictable
6. Time Traffic Lights
7. Expect the Expected
8. Compensate for the Ignorant
9. Teach Others
10. Make Sure an Accident is Never Your Fault

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