Zipper-merge proposal goes nowhere fast in Washington

Everything we need to know to survive and thrive in this lifetime, we learned at age 5, according to a wildly popular book from the 1980s. That certainly includes a skill most people learn slowly and grudgingly as children: taking turns.

As grownups, it means we don’t cut the line at the grocery store. We don’t behave like conversational bullies by cutting off other people whenever they try to speak.

And perhaps the most important application of the turn-taking rule in the Puget Sound region: We don’t cut off other drivers from merging safely and smoothly into traffic.

Heading into a busy holiday travel weekend and a long summer road-construction season, we could all stand to brush up on these skills.

Robert Fulghum, author of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” might appreciate a proposal in the Washington Legislature this year, sponsored by a pair of Pierce County Republican lawmakers.

House Bill 1614, aka the “zipper merge” billl, sought to require that proper traffic-lane-merging etiquette be taught in drivers-education classes and tested on the written section of the licensing exam.

Despite a lot of media attention, however, the idea got stuck in a House committee like a busted zipper on a thrift-store jacket.

Then again, maybe Fulghum wouldn’t be too bothered that the bill hit a snag. After all, as he wrote in his 1986 bestseller: “Speed and efficiency do not always increase the quality of life.”

In other words, take time to smell the roses — or the tailpipe exhaust, as the case may be.

There’s no question that state Reps. Jesse Young of Gig Harbor and Chris Gildon of Puyallup promoted zipper-merge education in the interest of speed and efficiency, with a measure of safety thrown in.

If you’re a good driver, you likely already use the technique without necessarily knowing what it’s called. Advocated by transportation officials in Washington and a growing number of states, it comes into play when a lane of traffic is about to end; drivers in the merging lane alternate with cars in the continuing lane, every other one, like the teeth of a zipper.

It’s also sometimes called a “late merge” because, when done right, the merging motorist waits until just before the lane runs out. This allows the vehicle to keep a steady speed and use more of the available pavement, while preventing drivers in both lanes from excessive braking.

The problem is that it creates an illusion of lane cheating, when in fact it’s a mutually beneficial, grown-up adaptation of taking turns.

We have no quarrel with the efficacy of the zipper merge, especially at a time when the Seattle-Tacoma region ranks as the sixth-most gridlocked corridor in the U.S. “When merging is done incorrectly, it leads to increased traffic congestion, potential road rage, and more accidents,” Young said.

He’s not wrong. But does the zipper-merge really need to be mandated for official training materials and state exams? Probably not, we say, because experienced driver’s-ed instructors already use common sense in teaching the technique, just as they do with dozens of other unwritten rules of the road.

They don’t need politicians micromanaging their curriculum like backseat drivers.

If Young and Gildon return next year with another push for zipper merging, perhaps they can also propose a nanny-state solution for congested grocery-store checkout counters.

When a cashier is about to close down a line, the next customer should be able to merge into the adjacent line without fear of incurring dirty looks or supermarket rage.

There ought to be a law.