Zipper Merge (copy)

Drivers head north on U.S. 69 into a construction zone in Overland Park, Kan., July 7, 2016. Kansas and Missouri departments of transportation hope to manage heavy construction seasons by persuading polite Midwesterners to do the zipper merge. Rather than merging as soon as it's safe, drivers will be asked to wait to merge as long as possible after nearing the construction zone for repairs. 

Will efficiency overtake politeness in how Omaha drivers handle merged traffic? That is, will the zipper merge method, fervently endorsed by a considerable number of Omaha drivers, become the norm on our city’s crowded streets?

If so, it’s going to take time. Specifically, it’s going to take public education and signage — and a change in culture.

As a practical matter, the zipper merge, in which vehicles stay in both lanes of traffic and take turns merging just before lane restrictions begin, makes much sense. It speeds up traffic movement — traffic researchers say it reduces congestion by 40%. It also reduces the chances of long lines of vehicles blocking intersections.

“There are enough advantages to the zipper merge that if the engineers had their way, that’s how people would behave,” Omaha City Engineer Todd Pfitzer told The World-Herald’s Roseann Moring.

As a psychological matter, though, the zipper merge faces big obstacles in Omaha. Many drivers don’t use it because they consider it impolite. Some think that a driver moving forward in the empty lane is motivated less by a sober appreciation of zipper merging than by selfishness. The red-light running and NASCAR-style driving on Omaha streets spur such cynicism.

Moring found passionate support for the zipper merge among a considerable number of Omaha drivers. State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha says she’s receiving more emails in support of the zipper merge than she has about property tax relief.

Experience shows that signage promoting the zipper merge at street construction sites can direct drivers without controversy. Recent construction on 84th Street in Ralston provided an example. Greater use of such signage would be a big help. So would incorporation of the zipper merge in driver education.

Helpful, too, would be an improvement in Omaha traffic culture — less manic driving, more responsible behavior. Such conditions would help set the right tone for a practical change in how drivers handle traffic merges.

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