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5 Driving Do's and Don'ts

February 19, 2015

With roads and freeways at overcapacity, even a small driving slip-up can cause huge problems for traffic. There are five things every driver can do (or avoid doing) that help improve traffic flow for everyone. 

You can blame a booming economy for the traffic congestion we’re all dealing with.

More jobs and construction means there are more cars on the road at any given time. Commutes start earlier and last longer. And there are headaches aplenty: commuters spent more than 40 hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic last year, and this year doesn’t promise to be much better.

With Seattle metro area roads and freeways at overcapacity, there’s no room for bad driving.

“How people drive affects how well the roadway works,” says Washington State Transportation Center Director Mark Hallenbeck. “And there’s a lot in traffic flow theory that says as you reach capacity of the roadway, if everyone were to drive smoothly, you would be able to fit more vehicles on at a smoother, faster speed.”

But when you’re already at overcapacity, a little thing creates huge problems.

“So that congestion point, when you had to brake and three people had to brake even harder behind you, suddenly that becomes its own bottleneck,” notes Hallenbeck. “Once it forms, it doesn’t go away until the end of rush hour, when volume drops to the point where that can go away.”

When we're out there in traffic, it seems like everything is out of our control. But there are five things every driver can do (or avoid doing) that will improve traffic flow for everyone.


1. Don’t block the intersection

A classic example of cars blocking the intersection on Mercer Street.

“Gridlock happens when people get in [the intersection] and can’t continue through, and then literally the downtown grid, or wherever you happen to be, comes to the point where it can’t move,” says Hallenbeck. “So that makes a bad situation a hundred times worse.”

So if you’re at green light during heavy traffic, stay at the stop bar until you know you can get across—especially if you see cars collecting in the intersection. This is one traffic situation largely under your control.

“[If you’re blocking the intersection], you’re not helping the situation, you’re kinda being incredibly selfish for really no reason,” says WSWDOT spokesman Travis Phelps. “You’re not going to get across that intersection any faster.”


2. Hands off the phone

Texting while driving—while dangerous—also slows down traffic flow considerably.

It’s incredibly dangerous to talk or text while driving, and it also slows up driving more than almost anything else. While you’re sending your cute emojis, you’re not noticing what’s happening around you—and that equals a big frowny face for traffic.  


3. Use the zipper merge

With construction happening on top of congestion, lane closures are a fact of life. But merging doesn’t have to slow everyone down, as long as you use the zipper merge.

“The proper way to do it is to drive together to the far end, and everybody travels the same distance, you and the car next to you,” says Hallenbeck.  “At the very end, you let each other in politely—one car for one car, one car for one car. “

If you feel that you’re cheating by “cutting the line” when zipper merging, you’re definitely not alone. But you’re wrong: merging in the middle (instead of the end) creates a choke point in traffic. The zipper merge solves this, as cars smoothly merge in without any choke points when  it’s done correctly.

"It’s also going to help your overall traffic flow, it’s a lot more orderly,” suggests Phelps. “Folks aren’t freaked out by being cut off or waiting to merge. It’s kinda like the supermarket when they open another checkstand.”


4. Take your free right (or left)

Not taking a free turn will cause a backup of traffic behind you.

Attention newcomers: unless otherwise marked, you can take a right (or left) turn on a red light after stopping.  Of course, you'll make sure the lane is clear of cars and you're watching for pedestrians before doing so.

Free turns on red lights may be curtailed in many of Seattle's busiest intersections however.  The city is introducing the "Vision Zero" campaign, an effort to end traffic deaths and serious injuries in the next 15 years. Part of the campaign's safety improvments include eliminating turns on red lights and dual turn lanes. 

But for now, not taking your free turn will cause even more backup—and frustration—for the cars behind you, and ultimately you’re wasting your own time as well.


5. Look ahead before changing lanes

Be aware of what's coming up before deciding to switch lanes.

Sometimes you have to change lanes to get to the exit you need. But if you’re changing lanes to get ahead, you’re just slowing everyone else down.

“Lane changes actually create classic bottlenecks,” says Hallenbeck. “And the driver you just pulled in front of has to slow down in order to give himself or herself stopping distance—and that braking causes the disruption.”

Plan ahead, and look ahead. Before you decide to change lanes, examine your surroundings: for example, seeing if there’s a backup ahead on the lane you want to get in. If you don’t need to reach an exit, many times you’ll find that simply staying in your lane will help traffic and get you to your destination faster.  




Made possible in part by

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming.  His credits include PIE, Something in the Water  (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase.  Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.

More stories by Stephen Hegg

Alex Tran

Alexander Tran is a production intern at KCTS. Currently a senior at the University of Washington studying journalism, Alexander has also interned at KING-TV and was awarded the Northwest Asian Weekly Scholarship in 2014. He is set to commission into the United States Air Force as an officer this June.


More stories by Alex Tran

There are 8 comments

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An excellent list, though I would add one more: leave space between you and the car in front of you. You won't need to brake as often, it allows others to change lanes easily if needed, lessens your chances of rear-ending someone, and improves your ability to see further ahead and make lane changes.

Always use your blinker so other drivers know when you're changing lanes and which direction you're headed!

Use your signals for lane changes

No left lane camping! The left lane is designed as a passing lane. If you are going 62 in the left lane on a highway/freeway and no one is next to you in the right lane, move over.

No u cant make free left turns. You can only make a free left turn if its at a blinking yellow light. Otherwise you have to wait for a green forward light.

Agreed with JM! I would also like to add one to the list - in heavy freeway traffic, try to avoid coming to a complete stop as much as possible. If a large amount of the traffic is able to keep moving, even slowly, then this helps to avoid the waves of stop-and-go traffic. This instead makes it go more smoothly, and assists with cars that are entering the freeway.

You certainly can take a free left turn in certain intersections. Namely one way street intersections. There are all over down town Seattle.

I also agree with JM; tailgating is the number one cause of rear-end and front end collisions. I also would add another tip: if you know your destination isn't for some time, stay to the right as much as possible if you're driving on the freeway. That way merging traffic can enter the roadway with less traffic to deal with.