Driving Question: When to Merge Prior to a Closed Lane?

After you rent a vehicle in a location at which you have never been before, you are driving on a road or highway which has at least two lanes of vehicles that travel in the same direction. A traffic sign appears which warns that one lane is closed ahead — one mile ahead as an example — perhaps because of construction or some other reason.

What do you do — or better yet, what are you supposed to do?

Driving Question: When to Merge Prior to a Closed Lane?

Road Work Ahead Sign

Photograph ©2016 by Brian Cohen.

The answer to the question may be to ensure that you are driving in the lane which is not closed off to traffic — if no other vehicles are on the road…

…but what if other traffic is present at the time and all of the vehicles are merging into one lane? The “zipper” method — in which vehicles from two lanes alternate one at a time to merge into one lane, similar to the interlocking of the protruding teeth of a zipper when closing up two parts of a garment — typically works best and is usually the quickest way to alleviate traffic congestion at what is known as a bottleneck.

That all sounds fine — but the answer to the question becomes trickier when a line forms in the lane which remains open. What if the lane which closes in one mile is free of vehicles — but the other lane already has a line of vehicles which is either slowly moving or not moving at all? Do you merge your vehicle at that point — or do you drive in the open lane to the point where the lane is actually closed?

In different parts of the United States, I have witnessed at least two scenarios: one which traffic from both lanes merge at the point where the lane is closed…

…but in parts of the southern United States, I have seen one long line of vehicles wait in one lane, while the other lane is free of traffic at a point at which no solid line, pylons, or any other traffic controlling device dictates that that open lane cannot be used by motorists — in other words, using that open lane is not considered illegal.

Do you merge into traffic at that point — or do you use the open lane until you reach the official point of where the lane is closed?

The question could be further defined as to whether the open lane is the left lane or the right lane: technically, passing traffic in the right lane is generally considered illegal — so what if the left lane was the open lane which is closed to traffic one mile down the road?


Highway work zone sign

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

I have heard that even though using an open lane to pass a line of traffic prior to the point at which vehicles are forced to officially merge into one lane may be legal, it is considered rude and of poor driving etiquette to do so…

…so if the construction zone happens to be near a sewage treatment plant; a landfill; a paper mill; a cheese factory; and a farm with cows, pigs, and chickens which used for industrial purposes, would you want to sit in traffic and be polite — or would you want to get out of there as soon as possible?

All humor aside, what would you say is the correct answer?

Other articles which pertain to being on the road at The Gate include:

All photographs ©2016, ©2017, and ©2020 by Brian Cohen.

15 thoughts on “Driving Question: When to Merge Prior to a Closed Lane?”

  1. Barry Graham says:

    Drive to end of lane then merge. If all did that the other line would be shorter.

  2. Billy Bob says:

    In the USA, it’s way less chaotic. The zipper actually works in most cases when there is traffic. There are always those who fly down the closing lane, look for a gap (large trucks will leave one) hit the brakes and jump in.
    And then there are those who go all the way to the very end and rudely start to nose in such that they are daring you to hit them.
    In Asia when this happens it is totally a free-for-all. Everyone goes as far as they possibly can in the closed lane, gets to the end, and then lays on the horn in a game of chicken to get in front of one more car. Cones are knocked down. They either use a human flagman or a robot dressed as one. When driving in general, the rule here is: never signal any sort of lane change. As soon as you signal, the guy behind you in the other lane speeds up and absolutely won’t let you in.
    You should see ‘uncontrolled intersections’ here. The rule is: hit the gas and the horn at the same time and blast through.

  3. Your daddy says:

    People are sheep. Everyone gets in the one lane because they are afraid. I love it. I zoom by all the way till the end. Too many sheep in the U.S. dateline or someone put a security guard on a road that entered Texas. They filmed this guare telling people that Texas was closed for the day 90+% of the people turned around and went back to New Mexico. Sheep, really Texas is closed..

  4. Carl WV says:

    I never let in the special people that go to the very end before trying to merge. Last minute mergers certainly slows things down and almost causes accidents.

    It’s probably the same people that try to rush off the plane ahead of others. If having some common courtesy is being a sheep than we could use a bigger flock.

    1. Barry Graham says:

      And why is merging at the last minute any less safe than “alternate merge” systems that specifically want you to use both lanes?

      1. Carl WV says:

        I find people gladly let you merge in ahead of time. They’re pissed if you’ve driven by everybody and are less likely to let you in at the very end.

        In northern Virginia there are a lot of last minute mergers. Not so much in WV – maybe because people know there are more gun carries.

  5. Barry Graham says:

    Can you point us to a source that proves that last minute mergers slow things down? It would seem obvious that only using half the road space would slow things down much more. The only thing special is that these people are using the full capacity of the road. I also don’t see how it’s more dangerous having one or two cars trying to merge at the end of the lane than it is to have the same number of cars or more trying to merge further back when both cars are traveling much faster.

  6. Carl WV says:

    Just 50 years driving experience.,

    Do you feel people that have been waiting are happy letting you in right before the merge is forced? I’ve seen plenty of last minute mergers taking a half dozen cars to get in. I’ve also seen all the drivers that immediately move to the left lane when they see that it’s closing ahead..

    I am not talking about case where both lanes are full.

    1. NB_ga says:

      I am with you @Carl WV… the safe and polite thing to do is to merge into the remaining lane as soon as possible and proceed calmly forward. I am quite annoyed by those who drive to very last second and then try to nudge their way in. And, yes, I was born and raised in the South!

  7. Fathiss says:

    Wow! Just when I thought your articles couldn’t get any more irrelevant I find I underestimated you again.
    At least it’s not another cut and paste job of some promotion no one cares about.
    You must be really struggling for material post COVID.

    1. NB_ga says:

      Goodness, you spend an awful lot of time and effort commenting on these supposedly irrelevant posts! They must provide some degree of enjoyment for you, at least. Be thankful for that.

    2. Barry Graham says:

      You must be really interesting to live with, with all those hurtful comments you post about Brian’s articles. Maybe you should use your real name and then you would post much kinder words.

  8. Jinxed_K says:

    My experience in New England is even if you wanted to merge into the open lane soon as possible, nobody lets you in… I’ve seen some people speed up and close the gap soon as you turn your blinkers on… which kinda forces you to keep going to the end looking for a space or where (hopefully) a zipper merge is possible.
    I’ve also seen instances of me being in the open lane giving space for a car in the closed lane to zipper merge in, but two or even three people will try and gun for that space.

  9. Randy says:

    If there are signs stating that the merge is a zipper then it works, e.g. I have experienced that in PA. However, if there is no zipper sign, merging as soon as it is known works best. The single line wouldn’t get that backed up if people weren’t constantly slowing way own or stopping to let the racers in right at the end.

  10. i always find these rules confusing and frustratingng

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