By on July 31, 2009

Physics Central’s Buzz Blog reports on a study which shows that breaking the rules can be the best way to help keep traffic flowing. The study by Sweden’s Umea University modeled traffic composed of “normal” pedestrians and “rule breakers,” finding that when over 60 percent of traffic consists of “rule breakers” things actually move more efficiently. “The interesting finding is that if most of the people are law-abiding, and you have a certain amount of people who are breaking the rule, then you are actually getting the minimum chance of a [traffic] jam,” says one of the study’s authors. Exactly following the rules of the road can cause traffic to build up behind a single negligent driver (who hasn’t seen that happen), and often the jam is only relieved by a driver breaking the speed limit to pass. Of course, there are other studies coming out which indicate that higher speed limits lead to higher death rates, but death only hurts for a few seconds. The pain of being stuck in a jam of mindless motorists can feel like an eternity.

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25 Comments on ““Jerks” Keep Traffic Flowing...”


  • avatar
    commando1

    I drove a truck 35 years.
    Tell me something I didn’t know……

    What’s that award they give out for useless studies?

  • avatar
    dolo54

    The drivers of NYC realized this fact a long time ago. Drive slow and witless like half the people here in LA do and you would get cut off and honked at mercilessly. Yes, I miss driving in NY.

  • avatar
    AKM

    The title is misleading. We’re not talking about jerks breaking social conventions, we’re talking about people doing something about a negligent driver. It’s quite different.
    I mean, EVERYBODY drives above the speed limit in NJ, and yet, traffic doesn’t flow very well. Because the jerks are the people who randomly change lanes, sit in between two lanes, rubberneck, etc.

  • avatar
    Axel

    I remember a few years ago someone advocating that when there is a lane restriction ahead, rather than everyone merging a mile or more ahead of time, drivers should wait until the last possible moment to merge, and cooperatively interleave into the remaining open lane.

    The rationale is, if everyone was “polite” and merged way before the restriction, no one would be using a perfectly good open lane of road. If everyone in the wrong lane was a “jerk” and merged at the last minute, all of the road’s capacity would be utilized, leading to less overall congestion.

    In theory. If cars were driven by robots, it would work.

  • avatar
    AKM

    The rationale is, if everyone was “polite” and merged way before the restriction, no one would be using a perfectly good open lane of road. If everyone was a “jerk” and merged at the last minute, all of the road’s capacity would be utilized, leading to less overall congestion.

    In theory. If cars were driven by robots, it would work.

    Exactly. What doesn’t work is people getting into the merging lane, accelerating, and then pushing back into the lane. It works only if all 3 lanes are used correctly, and people are then polite enough to practice alternate merging.

  • avatar
    stevelovescars

    Once, justs once, I’d love to see someone get a ticket for driving 50 mph in the left lane on the freeway obstructing traffic.

    It isn’t the guy going 70 mph trying to get around the road block that’s the problem, it’s the differential in speed caused by the roadblocks that cause accidents. If everyone were paying attention and driving 90 mph I would predict roads would be safer than they are with drivers scared to approach the speed limit, cell phones, makeup-applying drivers, newspapers open on steering wheels, and other common things I see on the road.

    I would also like to see the IIHS focus a little less attention on passive safety and crash tests and start supporting real driver’s education, and accident avoidance.

  • avatar
    fallout11

    True enough Steve, in fact it is the ridiculously slow speeds that encourage moron drivers to chat on the cell, read the paper, apply makeup, eat, etc. They feel safe at that speed and it takes little actual attention on the road. At 90mph, no one in their right mind would attempt to do anything else except pay attention and drive, which is exactly what they should be doing in the first place.

  • avatar

    Indeed. I’d wager that “jerks” are what the timid and limp-ankled call people who are assertive and actually make an effort to engage on the roads.

    ‘Traffic flow’ is a lost concept.

  • avatar
    wsn

    A similar study was done in Shanghai, China. The conclusion was that the traffic jam was caused by everyone trying to squeeze in front of everyone, and if everyone obeys traffic rules, the average speed would double.

  • avatar
    Wunsch

    The rationale is, if everyone was “polite” and merged way before the restriction, no one would be using a perfectly good open lane of road. If everyone in the wrong lane was a “jerk” and merged at the last minute, all of the road’s capacity would be utilized, leading to less overall congestion.

    I’ve actually seen this work, when I visited Montreal. I was quite impressed.

    I’ve heard a lot of people complain about Montreal drivers. Yes, they’re pushy and aggressive, but I had no problem driving there. They kept the traffic flowing smoothly, even with lanes closed in very high-traffic situations.

  • avatar
    orangefruitbat

    True, but the safe distance between vehicles would more than double.

    At 60mph you will double the amount of vehicles on the road at any one time compared to 120mph.

  • avatar
    BubbaFett

    When I read the title, I thought you meant the jerks who meander listlessly in the left lane….the jerks who stop at merge signs….the jerks who pass at 1mph faster than another vehicle via cruise control….the jerks talking on their phone and swerving into my lane…the old jerks who wouldn’t be able to pass a driving (or vision) test if it was given today….

    Turns out you mean me! ;-)

  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    Indeed.
    I remember one time driving on a Denver freeway in what was heavy , but still smoothly and quickly flowing traffic. I (and everyone else) came up on a slowdown involving at least 100 cars. Volume? No. Over a crest there was open highway visible out ahead of the slowdown. There was a brand new BMW with a temporary license hogging the left lane. He/she was adhering very closely to the speed limit.
    That was a good many years ago, but the fact that there was one car, failing to “keep right except to pass” or “slower traffic keep right”, while dogmatically obeying the speed limit, literally was forcing the rest of traffic to drop well below the limit, really registered in my memory.

  • avatar
    Mike66Chryslers

    I remember a few years ago someone advocating that when there is a lane restriction ahead, rather than everyone merging a mile or more ahead of time, drivers should wait until the last possible moment to merge, and cooperatively interleave into the remaining open lane.

    That perfectly describes what I encountered when I was vacationing in Victoria, BC several years ago. Three lanes merged into one to go over the bridge across the river. I thought “this is going to be awful” but it turned out to be the only stress-free traffic jam I’ve ever been in.

  • avatar
    Carzzi

    So many times, I’ve come across a slow-moving herd of traffic on the interstate during off-peak hours, with everyone religiously adhering to the speed limit, and what do I see at the front? A cop cruiser driving at or 5 below the posted limit, with no-one in the pack with the cojones to pass. And traffic continues to build up behind the pack.

    In these revenue-strapped times, I don’t blame the commuters from avoiding any confrontation from our revenue-agents in blue.

    Ah, c’est la vie.

  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    BTW as far as I am concerned, when I am driving,
    ALL other drivers are “jerks”. I am the only good driver out there.

    :)

    In reality I am probably the biggest “jerk”

  • avatar
    agenthex

    Keep Traffic Flowing

    This is the most important phrase here.

    It seems canon to teach new drivers that slowest is safest, when it seems to follow that slowest is just slowest.

    The secret is just be smooth. I’ve seen numerous jams form behind jerky (har har) drivers who can only seem to make one input to the car at a time; watching them trying to merge into traffic is excruciating as they often insist on doing so from a complete stop. They’re probably <1-5% of all drivers (you know, the ones whose technique never seems to have evolved past the second day of driver’s ed) and yet they cause everyone to be delayed, for many many billions of dollars in loss of productivity.

    Of course, leeches likes these will never get targeted for enforcement.

  • avatar
    Wolven

    agenthex : “Of course, leeches likes these will never get targeted for enforcement.”

    Oh, hell no. First, they give the incompetent morons a drivers license. Next, they set the laws to accomodate the most moronasauruses. Then, they rob and punish any competent drivers that won’t drive like the addle minded idiots.

    All in the name of safety of course. Cuz, God forbid, if the moron were to kill themselves before they could breed…

  • avatar
    mcs

    Don’t forget the center lane drivers that belong in the right lane. Sometimes they’re the cause of the issues in the left lane. You get a 60 mph driver in the left lane passing a 55 mph driver in the center lane with the fastest traffic diving for the right lane.

  • avatar
    yankinwaoz

    Having driven all over Italy, I was very impressed with how much traffic actually moves in the big cities. They don’t follow strict rules of the road. They tend to just flow like water drops, filling all available spaces, and moving around obstacles.

    I haven’t had the nerve to drive in SE Asia yet. But as a pedestrian and passenger, I am constantly amazed at how traffic moves so chaotically, yet you never see collisions.

  • avatar
    gamper

    I will say that being a jerk really keeps traffic flowing for myself. I am not so sure about anybody else though. But you cannot argue with science. So I guess to all those who have and might extend the middle finger to me………your welcome!

  • avatar
    niky

    Title needs more specificity.

    “Breaking the speed limit to clear an obstruction helps reduce congestion.”

    It’s not exactly identical to “Jerks reducing congestion.”

    The Shanghai study has it spot on. Asian drivers are already complete assholes. If larger percentage of drivers break lane laws to clear obstructions, you eventually end up with four lanes of traffic going one way, and none coming back the other. Or, even better… four directions of traffic bottled up at an intersection because eight idiots have tried to cross at the same time.

    I’ve heard of the experimental “zero-rules” areas in Europe… and I’ll admit… that might work if all of your drivers have an EQ equivalent to Mother Theresa… or are already used to driving in the manner prescribed by strictly enforced traffic laws, but otherwise, it’s a hopeless task.

  • avatar
    stuki

    For the above described temporary chokes to be pain free, requires people to temporarily, during the choke, stop adhering to whatever they normally consider “safe following distance.” Otherwise, once someone merges into your lane, you slow down, requiring the guy merging in behind you to slow even more etc. etc. So, instead of maintaining the same distance as before, recognize that the choke is temporary, drive closer, and compensate by being extra alert. Fat chance having a driving instructor teach kids that, though. Or our public school indoctrinated kids understanding a word of it even if he did.

    For extra credit, and to flaunt one’s mastery of higher order, non immediate, reasoning, it impresses to choose a low car with a low beltline and no pimp tint on the windows. The easier your car is to see through front to back, the easier you are to follow closely. Miatas are kings, and Motorcycles outright heroes. But I suspect anyone sentient enough to follow the above are already aware of that.

  • avatar
    agenthex

    The Shanghai study has it spot on. Asian drivers are already complete assholes. If larger percentage of drivers break lane laws to clear obstructions,

    This only further illustrates the point that it’s important to maximize flow. The shanghai/nyc problem is that drivers dive (accelerate and brake) for open spaces just to get ahead of a car or two.

    Again, if we enforced smooth driving and revoked licenses for hectic and unpredictable drivers, the better and safer the streets would be for everyone.

  • avatar
    obbop

    I am forced to admit I am a mere speed-bump upon the highway of love

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