29 November 2011

breaking the rules {part I}

This is life: one minute, someone offers you a free sandwich. The next minute, a baby almost throws up on you.

Life is, in other words, a mix of the good and the bad. And the smelly. That's the reminder I'm taking from this early morning flight to New York.


I was one of the first people on the plane, thanks to my boss' Platinum flight status on American and me following breezily behind him through the Priority Access line, even though I was technically in boarding Group 4.

"Here's what I've learned from years of travelling," he told me as he grabbed my boarding pass to present with his, "if you walk into a place like you belong there, most people won't question you. And if they do question you, smile and apologize profusely. If you're willing to risk the embarrassment of publicly being told you're wrong, then you'll usually end up where you want to be."

I smiled at the gate attendant, and she waved me through after complimenting my sweater.

He was right, I knew, but the concept felt wrong because—well, what do you do when you're driving on a busy highway and there's a sign telling you to merge right because the lane is closed ahead?

I immediately merge after checking all mirrors and my blindspot and signalling and checking my blindspot again.

I do it because that's what the sign is telling me to do and because I like to obey all rules so that I don't get in trouble.

But then—same driving situation and you've already merged—how do you feel when someone else ignores the MERGE NOW sign and instead zips ahead in the now traffic-less left lane to that point where you have to merge or you'll hit some construction equipment?

Then they edge their way into the line of cars, into the line of people who did what they were supposed to. These drivers callously push in because they know you'll have to let them in: it's either that or hit them.

They know that you're a rule-abider because of the blindspot-checking, signalling, sweet waving at other drivers, merging early thing you did the minute you saw the MERGE sign.

They know you won't succumb to road rage because as many times as you've seen Fried Green Tomatoes, you don't actually want to re-enact the famous "Towanda" scene where Kathy Bates rams the car of someone who stole her parking spot.

See that look of glee on her face as she rams into the other car? You will not have this look because you will not ram the car that ignored the MERGE sign and then cut in front of you. That rule-breaker knows that, and that's why they push into the line of cars in front of you.

But maybe when you get home, you'll make a plate of fried green tomatoes as a way to channel your rage. And because they're good comfort food.

How do you feel when someone ignores the rules like that?

I feel like screaming, "Cheater! Cheater!" That shrill cry coming directly off the playground. Do they think rules don't apply to them? These people with their blinkers menacingly clicking "Ha, ha! Me first! Ha, ha!"—do they think they're better than everyone else?

And yet.

For all my righteous anger at people who do not follow the rules of the road, I essentially did the same thing this morning, only not in a car: When faced with a massively long security line at O'Hare {hundreds and hundreds of people at just past 6am}, I jumped the line. I tricked the system. I didn't wait. I got ahead.

And it worked.

I think, if I were to be described as a character in a Jane Austen or Elizabeth Gaskell novel, it would go like this:
She was fastidious about following rules,
except when breaking them was to her advantage.


Coming soon: Part II, in which I explain how I bypassed the longest security line I'd ever seen and got rewarded with a free breakfast sandwich, not that I'm saying that sandwich was some sort of twisted karmic reward {even though the bacon was really good} and that I've given up my rule-abiding ways and now will be ignoring all signs and regulations.


  1. I used to be an early merger too. I thought the rule was as soon as you see the sign, you merge at the first small opportunity.

    Now I think I was wrong.

    A couple years ago, I read Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, and it converted me into a late merger. The author talks about merging behavior, and how if everyone used all available road space and performed a proper zipper merge at the end of the lane, traffic would flow faster. It made sense to me -- the lane is there for a reason. Really fascinating book. My mind was also blown when he revealed that adding capacity (extra lanes) to a busy highway can actually slow traffic down further.

  2. I was just about the right the same thing about merging that Rachel did! Come to think about it, I think she was the one to tell me about that book and late merging!

  3. I'm an omnimerger--I merge wherever I can--but thank you, Rachel, for your comment. Let me tell you why.

    I always felt like there was something inherently dangerous about every driver trying to get over into one lane so far in advance of the merging point. I mean, the merging point is where it is for a reason, presumably.

    In driver's ed, I was told that the merger had just as much right to the road as the nonmerger. The sections of the Illinois Vehicle Code below--especially Section 11-905--seem to confirm what I was taught. Unfortunately, 99-percent of drivers think that the merger doesn't have the same right-of-way as the nonmerger does.

    Here's what the Illinois Vehicle Code says in Chapter 11, Article 9, Rules of the Road. Even IF one lane had right-of-way on the highway--which isn't the case--Section 11-901(a) gives it to the merger, not the nonmerger:

    Sec. 11-901. Vehicles approaching or entering intersection.
    (a) When 2 vehicles approach or enter an intersection from different roadways at approximately the same time, the driver of the vehicle on the left must yield the right-of-way to the vehicle on the right.
    (b) The right-of-way rule declared in paragraph (a) of this Section is modified at through highways and otherwise as stated in this Chapter.
    (Source: P.A. 76-1739.)

    Sec. 11-905. Merging traffic. Not withstanding the right of way provision in Sec. 11-901 of this Act, at an intersection where traffic lanes are provided for merging traffic the driver of each vehicle on the converging roadways is required to adjust his vehicular speed and lateral position so as to avoid a collision with another vehicle.
    (Source: P.A. 81-860.)

  4. I have learned so much from these comments!

    I like your phrase "omnimerger," Andrew -- and I guess that's what I'd call myself: I merge at the best opportunity. But it is true that I merge sooner rather than later.

    Rachel, that book sounds fascinating. It makes me think of a few things:

    When you're sitting in traffic, it's tempting to yell at whoever designed the roads/construction project. "What were you thinking!??!" But a few years ago on a flight, I sat next to a highway engineer who'd worked on re-doing a major expressway in Chicago. He talked about the level of planning and detail that went into that project -- videoing the traffic flow for months in advance, for example, so that they could time the daily schedule right. I think of him when I get slowed down in a construction project.

    2. Earlier this year, the Chicago Tribune did a huge Sunday article on the reversible lanes on one of the expressways: when they're inbound vs. outbound, how they work, etc. There were lots of charts involved showing traffic capacity and daily traffic flows. I was fascinated.

    3. We should perhaps all go back to Drivers' Ed to learn how to do a proper zipper merge.

  5. Just so I don't cause any accidents out there.

    I noticed there seems to be a conflict between the Illinois Vehicle Code and the Illinois Rules of the Road book. From the "Right-of-Way" section in the book:

    "A driver must yield the right-of-way to through traffic when approaching a MERGE sign. You must increase or decrease your speed to avoid a crash."

    I don't know if this is only limited to the yellow, permanent merge signs or if a flashing yellow arrow at a construction site is considered a capital M-E-R-G-E sign.

    It should be noted that the Rules of the Road book says the driver on the expressway needs to adjust his or her speed to let the merging car enter the highway.

    I love the term "zipper merge": A metaphor we live by! I wonder, are there nonzipper merges?

  6. I remember Rachel bringing up this book before too and I often find myself yelling, "Be a zipper, people!" Sometimes it's followed by, "You motherjubber." Yes, I cuss like I'm censoring myself for a kindergartener, even when alone.



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