Why is it the traffic lane you just moved into is always the one that stops?

Hasn’t this happened to everyone?

I just read your short column:
The freeway has no stoplights, so why does traffic halt?

and while very informative, my real question is how is it that when I think I’m switching into a faster moving lane, I almost always end up standing still, watching three lanes of traffic zooming past me. As I sit there. Not moving.

There must be some law of physics to this, Cecil. Or perhaps, like in the article on slow traffic, there’s something psychological invovled?


My strategy:

Find the lane that everyone is moving out of and get into that one. (Barring the obvious stuff like accidents.)

All things otherwise being equal. Stay put.

Note that the converse of the first one might apply to your situation. You, and everyone else, sees a fast moving lane and gets into it. Avoid herd thinking -> avoid the herd.

The freeway I drive to work on has very constant patterns. It has four southbound lanes, the leftmost being a carpool lane. (call them 1 - 4 from left to right.) For most of the way, lane 3 is fastest, and lane 2, the supposed fast lane, is slowest. Just after the carpool lane becomes a traffic lane, lane 4 vanishes, and there is a merge from a major cross street. At a point around half a mile before the carpool lane ends, lane 2 beomes faster than lane 3. I can almost always maximize my speed by moving from lane 3 to 2 at this point - otherwise staying put works best.

Why people who drive this road every day stay in lane 2 though it is always slower is something I can’t fathom. Perhaps they are too busy talking on their cellphones to notice their surroundings.

This happens for the same reason that if you decide to move to the “faster” check out lane next to the “slow” lane you happen to be in at the time, the “fast” lane gets stuck by a price check or credit card that won’t clear (or a cashier who is lousy at remember produce codes).

In traffic, though, there is a more reasonable explanation. Do you really think that you are the only one who noticed that this lane was moving faster than all the others? Do you really think that you are the only one who wants to get to where they are going faster? In other words, the ex-“fast” lane slows down because everyone is trying to use it, thereby clogging it up and slowing it down. The lane you left gets faster because there is less traffic in it (everyone left it, right?), so there is less to slow it down.

A Canadian study, though, says that it’s all relative. You just think the other lane is going faster than the lane you are in right now.

For similar reasons, I’m firmly convinced that the laws of physics are against me.

I mean, for things to always be bumping my head, falling out of my hands, tripping me, spilling, etc., this HAS to be true.

(And don’t tell me that it’s ME–we just discussed loci of control in psychology class, and I know I have a good, healthy INTERNAL locus of control. This seriously isn’t my fault!)

Oh, by the way, in Europe, they treat their grocery store cashiers a little nicer than we do. Not only do they get to sit, they don’t have to memorize produce codes. When you get your bananas, you put them on a scale, punch the button that shows bananas, and it prints out a sticky barcode tag that you put on your bag o’ bananas. So you do all the work and she gets her 6 weeks of vacation per year…

I think the Canadian study is correct. You only notice 'the other lane" when it’s going faster than yours. All the main lanes (leaving the carpool and “slow” lanes of it) tend to stop and go. “Chasing the faster lane” doesn’t help you at all, and makes the overall traffic slower.

Perhaps you should discuss that statement with your professor.