Ergonomics vs etiquette

How can we make our road network more efficient? Be less polite, says this article by Guy Walker at Heriot-Watt.

Imagine you’re driving along the motorway, with three lanes of emptiness ahead of you. Then you see signs warning of roadworks and lane closures. As the traffic thickens and the point arrives where the closed lanes have to merge, what happens? Does everyone make maximum use of the available road space and allow others to merge at the head of the line with a friendly wave and a spirit of mutual cooperation?

Their models suggest that this and other social pressures have a dramatic influence on how efficiently we use the roads.

We call this phenomenon conformity and there is a lot of it about. Research shows that drivers approach junctions faster and brake later when being followed compared to when they are on their own. Other research describes the pressure we all feel to keep up with others, sometimes even when it is not safe to do so. People the driver knows, such as passengers, tend to inhibit speed. In other situations, with anonymous other drivers, it has the reverse effect, as we can see in the early merging in response to upcoming roadworks. None of us wants to experience the aversive stimuli of being hooted at or blocked from merging, nor being regarded as a ‘typical white van/BMW/Audi/Volvo driver’. These factors all sound rather trivial, but they are clearly a more powerful determinant of behaviour than the rational optimisation we, and engineers, would like to assume. And it gets worse. Through social learning these behaviours feed back into the wider driving culture to themselves become local and national norms of behaviour, continually reinforcing what people will keep conforming to.

The case of merging lanes could easily be solved by a sign saying ‘Please use both lanes as far as possible’. But the more important question for you to ponder today is this:

Isn’t politeness always at the expense of efficiency? And isn’t that, really, part of the point?

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