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Washington drivers need Montana’s new zipper merge signs

Zipper merging is still a tough sell for many in Washington who believe drivers moving into traffic correctly are simply cutting the line. Maybe Washington state needs to take a page from Montana to help drivers get the message.

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97.3 KIRO FM listener Suzanne Rohner was traveling near Helena recently when she came across a construction zone where the road was reduced from two lanes to one. She said there were signs instructing drivers on the proper way to zipper merge.

“The first sign gives ‘permission’ to be in the merge lane all the way up to the merge point and, more importantly, that sign lets everyone know that those people

in the merging lane are not [jerks] trying to cut in line,” she wrote in an email.  “The second sign lets everyone know that if you don’t take turns merging, then you are a [jerk].”

Washington traffic, zipper merge

(Trooper Brian Moore, Washington State Patrol)

Jeremy Wilde is the construction traffic control engineer for the Montana Department of Transportation. He put the zipper merge in effect outside Helena and says the signs are key.

“The signs are telling you to use both lanes, and we also have a sign that says ‘take turns, merge here,'” he said. “That sign is trying to show you this is a good point to take those turns and merge here.”

The Montana Department of Transportation even created a video explaining the method to drivers.

Wilde said he went with the zipper merge because of the success it has everywhere else. They needed it after the first phase of construction led to huge backups because of the early mergers.

“When we took a lane away, we backed traffic up into the city, as well as into the city of East Helena, and what that does is it plugs up the entire transportation system around here,” he said.

For now, Montana only plans to promote the zipper merge around construction zones.

“If traffic is flowing smoothly and at highway speeds, we still promote getting over early and making sure you’re in the right lane,” Wilde said. “However, when traffic is backed up and congestion is heavy, this zipper merge is the way to go.”

Since zipper merging went into effect on Highway 12, Wilde said most drivers are adapting to the reality that those using the lane that is ending are not cutting in line.

“It’s been pretty good so far,” he said.  “There have been instances where it’s not so good when drivers refuse to take turns.”

UNPOPULAR OPINION: Blame yourself for bad Washington traffic

I asked the Washington Department of Transportation if it would consider using signs similar to those being used in Montana. That was one of the questions listener Suzanne raised as well.

“Having these signs on our roads would certainly clarify the proper zipper etiquette,” she wrote.

The state told me that they have looked into these specific zipper merging signs, but they do not have any.



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