Tacoma exit-lane cheaters not a menace to society

A sign on northbound Interstate 5 at the exit for South 56th Street in Tacoma says you can't re-enter the freeway if you exit. The penalty: a $136 ticket.
A sign on northbound Interstate 5 at the exit for South 56th Street in Tacoma says you can't re-enter the freeway if you exit. The penalty: a $136 ticket. The News Tribune

Cheaters never prosper, according to an old English proverb.

Unless they get away with it, according to a punchline by a contemporary American comedian.

That wry observation by Daniel Tosh could describe the everyday tension on Puget Sound roadways.

There’s an uneasy coexistence between courteous drivers who obey the rules of traffic etiquette to a fault (call them lineuppers) and coldly efficient drivers who see the rules as loose guidelines (call them corner cutters).

The tension runs high on the convoluted freeway corridor through Tacoma, where construction never ends and “expect delays” could be the unofficial catchphrase. Tacoma was recently ranked the 18th-most congested commute in North America, and it features the 16th-worst bottleneck (Interstate 5 between Interstate 705 and state Route 16) in the country.

In this high-stress environment, some of the harshest corner-cutter condemnation is reserved for one group: exit-lane cheaters.

You know who they are — the drivers who sneak around traffic back-ups by using the far-right lane, then cut back in front of you when the lane’s about to run out.

Some exit-lane cheaters have elevated this trick to a new level at the South 56th Street exit on northbound I-5. They stay in the exit lane, cruise down the collector-distributor lane that parallels the freeway for a half mile and then merge back onto I-5.

The Washington State Patrol doesn’t want these cheaters to prosper. WSP troopers are apparently ready to hand out $136 tickets to drivers who re-enter the freeway.

As TNT traffic columnist Candice Ruud reported last week, a sign at Exit 130 since at least last summer gives drivers fair warning. Says WSP spokesman Brooke Bova: "You never know when we're going to be there.”

With all due respect to law enforcement, and at risk of incurring the wrath of lineuppers, we think this may be a case where mercy is warranted.

In the first place, our freeway grid is a tangled mess that changes every few months, and even native Tacomans can lose their way.

How do troopers account for folks who say they took the 56th Street exit by mistake, then re-entered I-5 after realizing their error? And how do you know they’re not being truthful?

Ah, the “cheater’s conundrum,” says Bill Beaty, a University of Washington electrical engineer who has developed a national following as a traffic-flow nerd. “You have to be able to read people’s minds,” he said in an interview Friday.

These are the problems that crop up when punishing a behavior for which there’s no underlying statute and which isn’t normally against the law.

Secondly, troopers are being asked to enforce a one-off traffic sign, while drivers get away with the same shortcuts elsewhere. We’re aware of several other exits around town — for example, the Sprague Avenue ramp on eastbound SR 16 that offers a quick connection to I-5 — where people cheat their way around heavy traffic, with impunity.

If the exit-and-merge maneuver is prohibited one place, shouldn’t it be prohibited everywhere?

Finally, we question whether cheaters are the menace they’re portrayed to be. On a stretch of freeway that doesn’t have enough lanes, one could even argue that competent corner cutters are doing everyone a favor by taking the route less traveled.

In the event they violate a bonafide traffic law, such as making an unsafe lane change, troopers can always pull them over and ticket them for that.

Beaty says fewer troubles are caused by corner cutters than by lineuppers who won’t let cutters merge seamlessly back into traffic. And by tailgating, they’re the ones actually breaking the law.

If everyone would stay calm, practice skills such as “zipper merging” and not engage in vigilante lane blocking, our stop-and-go traffic would have less stop and more go.

Yes, this conflicts with core values we all learned in kindergarten: to wait in long lines and exact retribution against those who won’t wait with us. Go ahead and feel irritated about it.

But for the understaffed State Patrol, cracking down on clear lawbreakers — such as reckless, aggressive, distracted, drunk or stoned drivers — is time better spent.

Exit-lane cheaters are that rare breed of cheater for whom one could reasonably argue: Let them get away with it.