cognitive dissonance when the rubber hits the road

I am a car owner. I hasten to add, that I am only a car owner because the public transit infrastructure where I live is so painfully underfunded that I need one. To me, the best kind of car is one that couples in a row to run on tracks, preferably with a bike rack compartment somewhere handy.

So every once in a while I wind up reading some articles about cars (mostly to see if they're going to die off finally). Recently, I discovered this article by Ian Law, writing for the Wheels section of The Toronto Star (3 June 2011). He gives a lucid, solidly-argued explanation for why drivers who are not passing should stick to the outside lane. Even when there are three lanes. Even when the outside lane disappears from time to time, forcing drivers into what was the middle lane, but is now the outside lane (ie: how most Southern Ontario highways are constructed).

Funny thing, though: there's a 12 September article also printed in the Wheels section of The Toronto Star entitled "The science behind traffic jams". It gives three behaviours (mass behaviours of groups of drivers, not individual driving behaviours) that cause traffic jams. The first two behaviours are about how changing lanes causes traffic jams.

So we're supposed to drive in the outside lane (what most Golden Horseshoe drivers think of as the "merge lane") and change lanes when that lane disappears into an exit ramp (and it will), yet changing lanes is what makes traffic slow to begin with.

Personally, I agree with Law that usually the outside lane is for driving in. The problem is, it seems that the Golden Horseshoe does not have "usual" highways. I remember when one of my brothers came home from a motoring vacation in Germany: the first thing he wanted to tell me about was how much easier autobahns were to navigate than GTA-area highways, because you didn't have to worry about exiting by "accident", even in high-volume traffic. That meant out-of-country drivers like him who weren't sure when the exit they wanted was going to come up could stay in the outside lane, confident they would remain on the highway until they were ready to leave it. You can't drive like that in the GTA —you'll wind up on a local road, trying to figure out how to get to the next on-ramp.

Look, I took my driver's test same as everyone else on the road (er, at least I hope they did), and I know perfectly well the right lane is supposed to be used except to pass. But that behaviour is simply not supported by the road designs in this part of the world.

When I got my first car (at age 32), I hadn't driven more than once a year for about five years. I made a point of sticking to the right lane like glue so that all the other drivers could go around me and not worry about me getting in their way as I learned how to navigate Toronto and area by car instead of by public transit. Anyone who's driven here knows it's not the handling the car part that can be stressful, it's knowing how the different roads (and the lanes that make up those roads) are going to change in the next two kilometres.

I tend to be a middle-lane driver now, much to the chagrin of Law and others who think like him. I see it this way: if there are three lanes, the outside lane is for merging and exiting, the middle lane is for driving, and the inside lane is for passing. I know that's not the letter of the law as handed down by the Ministry of Transport. I also know it's the only way to get from Point A to Point B around here without having to change lanes a lot.

And changing lanes a lot, as studies have shown, causes traffic jams.