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Consider a busy interstate in a large US city around rush hour, such as Chicago.

Assume there are at least two types of drivers. One type is Driver A (Average). These drivers don't think especially hard about their drive, don't go out of their way to do any special driving behaviors, and generally just want to get home at the end of their day. This driver is a net neutral to the driving environment.

Driver B (Bad!) cares only about themselves and is willing to do whatever it takes to get themselves through traffic, including tailgating, passing on the shoulder, cutting in front of other drivers to change lanes, and all of the other things everyone hates. This driver is a net negative and makes the drives of everyone on the road worse.

My question is, is there a Driver C (Champion) whose driving behaviors are a net positive which makes the drive better for everyone, or is A for Average the best anyone can do?

And, if Driver C behaviors do exist, what are they?


I've tagged this question USA because the example city is Chicago and I'm mostly interested in US interstates, but if there are any universally applicable principles or behaviors, I'm interested in those too.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Travel Meta, or in Travel Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – JoErNanO
    Aug 29, 2023 at 20:07

9 Answers 9

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Traffic congestion reduction has attracted a lot of research. Some of it analyzed what makes an optimal driver (optimal in terms of traffic congestion reduction).

5 Secrets to Preventing Traffic Jams on Highways has a nice list:

  1. Drive at a consistent speed
  2. Don’t hit the brakes
  3. Allow cars to merge
  4. Use map apps to find the best Waze to your destination
  5. Leave early

Some pointers to actual scientific research papers: Tailgating doesn't get you there faster: Study

We've all experienced "phantom traffic jams" that arise without any apparent cause. Researchers from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) recently showed that we'd have fewer if we made one small change to how we drive: no more tailgating. [...]

"Our work shows that, if drivers all keep an equal distance between the cars on either side of them, such 'perturbations' would disappear as they travel down a line of traffic, rather than amplify to create a traffic jam," says Horn.


Side note about OP's bad driver (B):

passing on the shoulder

Some highways do allow that during peak hours, e.g. near Seattle, WA, USA and in my experience driving there, it is effective at traffic congestion reduction.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Travel Meta, or in Travel Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Rory Alsop
    Aug 30, 2023 at 22:49
21

There are two connected principle rules that were taught to me by a passionate sailor. I have found them very helpful, almost an eye-opener, in land traffic as well.

  • Be predictable. Make your intentions known, clearly and early. When you act, act unambiguously.
  • Establish and maintain a mental map of your surroundings in all directions, anticipate the future behavior of your traffic partners, and be prepared for contingencies.

The rules are connected because by making your intentions predictable you help the others to maintain their own mental map and draw the right conclusions.

The first rule actually is a double rule.

  1. Do not do anything surprising.
    • Obviously, do not be surprisingly fast or slow. Obey priority rules.
    • Avoid sudden, strong speed changes in either direction unless it is necessary.
    • With limited visibility, reduce your speed so that you can stop within the limits of visibility. If you may have oncoming traffic, half that.
    • Do not linger in other people's blind spot. You may not be on their mental map.
  2. In order to avoid surprises to others, "telegraph" your intentions and non-obvious actions.
    • Use your blinker before you turn or change lanes.
    • When you slow down, tap your brakes to signal the speed change to the traffic behind you.
    • When you become unusually slow, e.g. at the end of a congestion, use your warning flashers.
    • If you let somebody merge, be clear: Leave enough room and reduce the speed enough to make the other driver comfortable.
    • Stay in the right lane unless you want to pass. If you pass, pass without hesitation and dawdling.

The second rule includes things like

  • Do not, ever, drive distracted. Give the traffic your full attention. Do not use your cell. Set your GPS up before you start.
  • Use your mirrors, constantly.
  • Spot bad drivers and pay extra attention to them.
  • Try to predict what other people will do, given the situation. Is the car to your right approaching a slow truck? They'll want to merge. Are cars merging from the on-ramp? The cars in the right lane may want to make room and change lanes to the left. Is a car on the far left merging right? They may want to get to the announced exit and hence may continue to change lanes.
  • Drive with ample safety margins.

Lastly, a few remarks unrelated to the "sailing rules".

  • As in the rest of your life, be nice. Be cooperative. Let other people merge. Assist in emergencies. Do not engage in conflicts of any kind at all. If somebody annoys you, or wants to engage you in conflict, lose them one way or another and ignore them.
  • If you are late, accept the fact and do not change your driving.
  • Go with the flow. If everybody drives 5 mph over the speed limit, don't be anal and become an obstacle, leading to unnecessary passing maneuvers and slow-down behind you.
  • When you pass, be expeditious to avoid holding up traffic behind you.
  • Most accidents involve two mistakes (e.g. one driver turns without signaling and the other one drove with insufficient safety margins). Make sure you are not committing one of them. Here is one reason why it is important to be predictable: You give others a chance to predict and compensate for your mistakes.
  • Be self-critical and learn. We aren't perfect but we can improve.
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    "Most accidents involve two mistakes" That might honestly be the most important thing to remember. There are almost no accidents (or incidents really) that are 100% to blame on 1 person. One of my favorite YouTubers always says: "Make things a non-event." If somebody makes a mistake, accommodate them and fix it for them. Driving that way will make the road a safer place and promotes best flow.
    – Dnomyar96
    Aug 28, 2023 at 11:28
  • Unfortunately, neither of these rules are well taught in driver's ed, and they both contradict the (apparent) #1 rule in America: Me First. I still give +100 for this answer!
    – FreeMan
    Aug 28, 2023 at 14:19
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    "Stay in the right lane unless you want to pass. If you pass, pass without hesitation and dawdling." These two related rules are the most important ones for reducing Interstate congestion. If everyone followed them, a strong majority of Interstate traffic jams would not happen in the first place and the Interstates would be much safer due to free-flowing traffic, which inherently has more distance between vehicles, and also due to fewer annoyed/frustrated drivers. It is the law in at least 45 of the 50 states, but it is unfortunately not enforced as much as it should be.
    – reirab
    Aug 28, 2023 at 22:06
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    @reirab So, you really think that when traffic is so heavy that it slows down, telling people to not use the left lane will somehow make it faster for everyone? The "stay right except to pass" thing is for the open highway, not during congestion. Of course people are going to move the left lane when congestion starts. They want to pass! This rule exists for the rural highways, where they hope to have to repair the left lane less than the right lane. It's not really about driving or safety, etc. On non-divided highways, there's an argument for safety, that it prevents head-ons.
    – user27701
    Aug 28, 2023 at 23:27
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    @user27701 It absolutely is about safety. Free-flowing traffic is far more safe than half a mile or more of vehicles traveling in close proximity to each other just because someone decided to get into the left lane when they were not passing or to take 10 miles to pass. Of course, when traffic is already congested, people will merge left in attempt to pass. It's the vehicles in front of a line of traffic moving slowly/not passing in the left lane that are the problem. Whether urban, suburban, or rural, when not actively passing, you should merge right when able.
    – reirab
    Aug 29, 2023 at 7:17
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Don’t have any sources of references, but:

  • Do not drive. Work from home.
  • Do not drive. Use public transport.
  • If you drive, share your car.
  • Avoid rush hour. Now that se have seen that employers are willing to let people work from home, it’s obvious many can let people have slightly different schedules.
  • If you actually drive, obey the rules of the road. No speeding. No rubbernecking. Stay in your lane.

Most congestion happens when there is any type of incident. Do not cause incidents (hence no speeding) and do not participate in congestion when incidents happen (hence no rubbernecking).

But again, the best way to avoid congestion is just to avoid being on the road in the first place.

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    ? The "work from home" era is long gone. wsj.com/articles/… theweek.com/labor/1022149/is-the-era-of-remote-work-over linkedin.com/news/story/…. forbes.com/sites/richardmcgahey/2022/11/30/… W.F.H. was (trivially obviously) bad for companies, so they're ending / have ended it
    – Fattie
    Aug 27, 2023 at 15:32
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    Off topic - @Fattie - I am afraid that you are seriously mistaken. The only people WFH hurts are those with with heavy investment in office space, and managers who measure their empire by size and not performance.
    – Paul Smith
    Aug 27, 2023 at 22:43
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    @Fattie There's a certain percentage of people for whom working from home is feasible. That percentage is not 0 and it has not been 0 at any time in human history. Aug 28, 2023 at 1:39
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    These are very great advices and I agree with them. Unfortunately, they don't aswer the question. -1
    – vsz
    Aug 28, 2023 at 8:36
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    @Fattie you might want to read the articles you linked to a bit more carefully. Every single one of those (I couldn't read the WSJ one which was behind a paywall) is giving examples of how WFH has dropped from covid levels in some places/industries but remained the same or risen in others. Extrapolating from that to "the WFH era is long gone" is not reasonable, and all the articles clearly state that it's still around, just less common in some industries. For instance, I am posting this on a page owned by a company which is mostly WFH (SE) and I work for a company that is entirely WFH.
    – terdon
    Aug 28, 2023 at 15:52
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I'll skip standard "don't be an asshole" stuff because we already assume that C has good intentions.

There's one trick that I've heard here and there that apparently does a lot to reduce traffic jams, while not benefitting yourself directly:

When traffic is dense or stop-and-go, don't react to the car in front of you, react to the cars in front of them.

The purpose of this is that you drive more smoothly. Traffic will flow better if cars are driving at a constant speed instead of speeding up and slowing down all the time. Some documentary I watched years ago (and don't remember the title) showed that just a few drivers in a traffic jam doing that has a measurable impact on traffic.

As the famous Mythbusters episode on traffic jams (where they drove a bunch of cars in a circle and at a certain density, stop-and-go spontaneous manifests) showed, traffic jams are the result of people braking because they get too close to the car in front, and then everyone behind them brakes and when traffic is dense, that small braking gets amplified until somewhere down the line, someone comes to a stop.

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My experience is based on three decades of driving around Silicon Valley rather than Chicago, which I only know from infrequent visits. To the multitude of positive driving behaviors already mentioned, I will add zipper merging (one left, one right, one left, ...), as discussed at some breadth on this website:

But traffic experts have discovered in recent years that sometimes [merging early is] actually the wrong thing to do, and the late merge has now become the recommended procedure in a number of states including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington, Missouri, and Kansas, as well as in much of Europe, where in Germany it's actually the law. (German zipper-merge sign at left.) It's also supported and recommended by the AAA.
[...]
The Zipper Merge works best when traffic is already congested and moving slowly through a bottleneck, which is frequently the case. In that situation, merging early provides absolutely no benefit to anyone.

Unfortunately zipper merging can only work well if most drivers know what to do and maintain discipline. Around Silicon Valley, there is definite room for improvement in that regard. Much to my surprise, I experienced the most disciplined and smooth zipper merging I have seen in California to date on a business trip to Los Angeles when merging onto the 405 near the airport during the afternoon rush hour.

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    I grew up in Southern California, so zipper merges were absolutely standard for the most part. Then I moved to the east coast, and absolutely nobody here has the first clue about zipper merges, starting with the various departments of transportation. They put freaking stop signs at the end of merging lanes. It's insane.
    – Martha
    Aug 27, 2023 at 16:31
  • @Martha And lights with signs that say things like "only two cars may merge per green light".
    – user27701
    Aug 27, 2023 at 16:44
  • @user27701 Interest only: I'm in NZ. I disliked the 2 car at a time merge control lights when they were introduced. Information I've had since then has suggested that by reducing the total traffic on the highway proper at the entrance point they significantly improve overall flow rates. || As implemented they are "unfair" to the joining traffic. Add speed control to the highway traffic and an optimum result may be achieved. || Where zip merge is offered I merge early if allowed entry. Where people do not let me in I enter later as allowed - and usually gain position wrt those who blocked me. Aug 28, 2023 at 1:35
  • I was taught to zip merge (by my father, not my official "driving instructor") and just thought that was they way to do it. We now have signs at various on-ramps around my city indicating "merge at indicated merge point" and a follow up "merge point" sign. Doesn't seem to help because people aren't taught the concept...
    – FreeMan
    Aug 28, 2023 at 14:21
  • After looking closely at "zipper merges", I'll first note that it's not fully relevant to this question. Only in those few instances where the rush hour troubles are more or less caused by a reduction in lanes, whether by design or construction. Secondly, the only benefit I can determine is that is makes the back up shorter, but it will still take you just as long to get through it. Therefore, it only benefits unrelated traffic behind the lane reduced area.
    – user27701
    Aug 28, 2023 at 21:17
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Yes there is a Driver C. The Champion who treats the highway as a crucial part of life. A public venue which must be shared equally. The place where lives hang in balance as an accepted risk to be adapted to.
Driver Cs are ever vigilant, aware of the conditions all around, focused. Subconsciously recognizing, processing and anticipating the reactions of the other drivers. Always having an exit path and consideration that others need the same. The Champion will steer around those things which lead to accidents. The ways of accomplishing that objective are countless. The goal is to promote a quality life experience for everyone concerned.
A Champion knows it's in everyone's best interests to nurture the same attitudes in other drivers. Common courtesy, Common sense & Common local practices. There was a time, when Most truckers would have certainly fallen into the Champion category. But, as "Department of Public Safety" morphed into "Department of Transportation" ... it's the roads we have. Never should traveling be treated as a forced march. Anyone can be a Champion Driver.

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  • Being a Champion Driver is a frame of mind, an attitude, an acquired skill. Like choosing the best times & routes before a trip begins, like keeping your vehicle prepared beforehand, like keeping your emotions from doing the driving keeping your composure knowing yours & your vehicle's limitations, knowing when it's time for a break. Drive like you know your very existence depends on what you do each moment until this trip is done. And if daydreaming is your thing, dream up the many ways you can insure this trip will end uneventfully.
    – westexjoe
    Aug 29, 2023 at 15:24
  • @RussellMcMahon It's just a bunch of platitudes. Almost preachy. There's nothing practical in this answer.
    – user27701
    Aug 29, 2023 at 18:57
  • @user27701 That's a bit harsh. The style is "informal". BUT there are some solid items of good advice there. Vigilance, exit path_s, anticipating accident trigger points. And a few more. Mike Hailwood, among the top racing motorcyclists ever, died, along with his on, in a foggy British motorway pileup, while going for fish and chips. He knew better than having that happen. || Knowing your vehicle's limitations - especially braking and cornering. ... Aug 30, 2023 at 0:38
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The other answers are good, but there's one more:

Don't get stuck in the middle of intersections. This is Rule 128 in the Australian State of Victoria.

It's not quite to the question, but everyone, at some stage, will have to leave the motorway/interstate and drive on local streets/through intersections.

There's two obvious motivations for this rule:

  • those taking a different (non-congested) path through the intersection will be able to do so promptly (once their light turns green). For example: think of an intersection which is congested heading North, with a few drivers heading East-West. I'm thinking that research will prove that blocked intersections are a significant cause of congestion on city streets.
  • if the intersection is in-fact a level crossing (road/train crossing), Rule 123(e) applies. The stated penalty is 20 Penalty Units ($3846 AUD), but you also risk the death penalty :-)
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    Note that the question is about an interstate, which by definition (at least in the US) does not have any intersections.
    – Martha
    Aug 27, 2023 at 16:33
  • Off-topic, but the same is true in Germany (§11.1 StVO) - you must not enter an intersection unless you are able to leave it. Also, everybody who has ever designed a railway intersection in Factorio should be very familiar with that rule. :)
    – AnoE
    Aug 28, 2023 at 10:53
  • It's also the rule in the US, but is enforced with varying levels of intensity. In major cities like New York, they actually paint diamonds in the intersections as reminders to not block the intersection. Other places, the lights are so poorly timed, that people will crowd into the intersection because they'll have another long wait if they don't.
    – FreeMan
    Aug 28, 2023 at 14:28
  • @A.R. Full list of exceptions here
    – jcaron
    Aug 28, 2023 at 15:18
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Drivers C should be Cops.

They are expected to drive around and weed out Drivers B without creating much hassle for everyone else. I am not saying that they are overly efficient or overall effective, but this is what we have.

When trying to be a Champion, keep in mind that the whole system (roads, rules, cars) is designed to work acceptably with Drivers A and to tolerate a small minority of Drivers B. Self-appointed Champions are not expected and not designed around.

The maximum one could be above A is something like A+ - the one that uses the minimum acceleration in either direction (engine, brake, steering). Having transparent windows so the other drivers could see thru you car is a pleasant bonus.

And if you want to be really good - carry a honest, real, up to date fire extinguisher in your car (aim for 8-10kg or whatever it is in lbs) and learn how and when to use it.

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    Unfortunately, in the US, the cops are mostly looking to issue speeding tickets for revenue generation purposes. A good friend of mine is very high up in the local major city's patrol division. I asked him one time if "keep right except to pass" was still the law. He said "yes". I suggested that if the cops would enforce that it would probably make traffic flow smoother and reduce road rage incidents. He just glared at me... shrug
    – FreeMan
    Aug 28, 2023 at 14:25
  • @FreeMan all over the world, police has its own views on what their tasks are and these views somewhat diverge from what the average citizen thinks. We just don't have anything better (as of now).
    – fraxinus
    Aug 28, 2023 at 20:30
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    "the one that uses the minimum acceleration in either direction (engine, brake, steering)" This is terrible advice for an Interstate. You should accelerate up to traffic speed as quickly as possible and also pass expediently and then merge back over to the right as soon as it is safe to do so. People taking too long to pass or being in the left lane(s) when they are not actually passing is the biggest cause of congestion on the Interstates, not a solution to it. And people merging in well below highway speed are just as dangerous as extreme speeders.
    – reirab
    Aug 28, 2023 at 22:13
  • Absolutely 100% @reirab! Nothing causes congestion like granny trying to merge onto an interstate at 35MPH - even if traffic were only going the posted 55MPH. Of course, it doesn't help that people don't pay attention and switch lanes to give her room to get on... Then, of course, she wants to get to the far left lane and "speed" along at, oh, 53MPH... sigh...
    – FreeMan
    Aug 29, 2023 at 12:46
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    @user27701 Sorry, but that's just completely wrong and everyone who knows what they are talking about says what I said, which is also why it is the law in at least 45 of the 50 states. If you haven't seen lots of cases of traffic congestion caused solely by people who were not actually passing (or else doing so very slowly) then you either haven't spent much time driving on the Interstates or else aren't paying much attention to traffic. Note that this is the law regardless of your speed. It does not matter if you are traveling at or even above the posted speed limit.
    – reirab
    Aug 29, 2023 at 20:02
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As you get better at driving, and as for a certain gender testosterone poisoning fades with age, you start seeing ways to be helpful.

To start with, the zipper merge, or 2 lanes narrowing to 1. Cooperate with the zipper, do not get into a "virtue and vice" morality play about how the people in the ending lane are bad for racing down to the end. That is disproven science.

Out on rural interstates, drive in the right lane, pass on the left lane. Do not camp the left lane even if you are the fastest thing on the road. Most places you can get a ticket for that. If someone passes you on the right, you screwed up.

Semi trucks are an area of particular importance. First, transit quickly through their blind spots, and you should know where those are. If you are drafting a truck for hypermiling, don't tailgate - it works a lot farther back than you'd think, crosswinds allowing.

You may be familiar with the signal of two sharp flashes of high-beam as a "get the fork out of the left lane, second request". What I'm about to describe is NOT that signal, and don't confuse them or you will make people mad.

It takes a lot of energy, time and driver workload to change the speed of a truck, so it helps them when they can pass relatively freely without having to brake. When you see a truck signal to move into your lane, they have a problem in that they cannot easily see when they are safely clear of you. You can help them by communicating "come on over" by flipping the headlights (off or on, whatever they aren't now) twice "slowly" (as distinct from the above) I typically go 0.5 second flip, 0.5 second delay, 1.0 second flip. Do not use the high beams for this unless your lights are off and it's broad daylight. You will see trucks do this to each other.

The traditional "thank you" is two quick flips of the trailer lights, which they can do easily with a separate light control for the trailer.

I mentioned the "GTFO the left lane" signal because if you gave that in response to a signal request, the truck would probably expect you to ram on through, and might not be very nice.

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