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TrafficThink traffic jams are an unbeatable force?

Bill Beaty, an electrical engineer and “traffic physics” enthusiast, doesn’t think so.

After conducting his own experiments, Bill’s discovered a simple trick anyone can do to relieve two common types of traffic jams: the “merging-traffic jam” and the “traffic wave”

The strategy is to simply maintain a large space in front of you instead of instinctively speeding up to close any gaps. It’s counter-intuitive, but according to his own experiments, it works. Here’s what he says:

Traffic jams on highways are often triggered where two lanes must merge into one. Lanes of cars cannot merge if there are no large gaps between cars. Therefore, drivers who create large gaps between cars will ease this type of traffic jam.

Bill backs this up with thorough explanations and animated diagrams of his experiments. He also responds to a lenghthy list of frequently asked questions.

I find the idea of one driver being able to beat Goliath-like traffic jams fascinating. But I must confess. I don’t know how to drive and can’t test this out personally. So if any LifeClever reader would like to test this out, please share your results!

A cure for waves & jams
Merging-Lane Traffic Jams, A Simple Cure

Thanks to Hugh Dubberly for sending this my way.


  • right on bro!

    gravatarNov 25, 2006
    12:49 am

    IT WORKS! Santa, EB & myself guarantee it!

  • R

    gravatarNov 25, 2006
    5:40 am

    Obviously Bill Beaty has never driven on the freeways in Southern California. ;-)

  • John Todd

    gravatarNov 25, 2006
    11:19 am

    It works, to a point. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years. The problem is that as soon as the people in the lanes parallel to yours notice that there’s room to roam, they fill in the space.

    You end up backing off away from them, and the cycle repeats itself. Your personal commute ends up being increased with no appreciable effect on the overall jam.

    The only way to defeat traffic congestion is to make mass transit more attractive, tele-commuting more productive, or build more roads.

  • Omri

    gravatarNov 25, 2006
    12:14 pm

    Well there are a couple of assumptions that make this iffy when it comes to So Cal freeways. The most obvious structural flaw is that he relies on cheaters (people who merge in front of you from other lanes) to be compensated for by virtue of the fact that they’ve now opened up space in their lane. But for a merging jam, that space has less utility than the space you opened up if you were in the jammed lane, because that’s not what’s causing the jam. Ergo – a longer commute for you, no benefit to the traffic jam. I’m thinking particularly of the 110-5N interchange in LA – 4 lanes on the 110, and only the furthest left lane can take the offramp to the 5. So that lane is packed. But each subsequent lane is less crowded (the same dynamic holds, less dramatically, for any merging jam). But if I’m in the packed lane and leave space, people merge ahead of me – but the space they open up isn’t as valuable as the space they just took.

    The other problem, it seems to me, is that it’s empirically wrong. R’s joke about So Cal drivers seems more accurate.

  • Soham

    gravatarNov 26, 2006
    6:31 am

    Ok, Obviously he hasn’t taken the NJ Thruway/Garden State Parkway at 8:30 in the morning. Iam attesting to the fact that this does not work.

    But then again its NJ Traffic.

  • Damer

    gravatarNov 26, 2006
    9:13 am

    My understanding is that the “leave space” theory isn’t an individual effort, but rather something that needs to be done by everyone in the group. As others here have stated, one person leaving room will just get abused by more aggressive drivers. I think the only way this kind of thing could work would be if everyone had a computer-controlled robot-driver that was programmed to keep a specific distance between itself and the car ahead of it, thereby enforcing this technique for all cars on the road. For now, public transit++.

  • desmond!!

    gravatarNov 26, 2006
    10:15 am

    That sounds like a brilliant idea! Include that in driving lessons!

  • Michael

    gravatarNov 26, 2006
    10:53 am

    It works in Southern California, but not always. I’d say about half the time, people cut over to get in front of you and fill in the space you’re leaving. But when they don’t, it’s great.

    I’ve noticed that it works better during regular workday commutes as opposed to holiday traffic. My guess is that there are fewer jerks during the daily commute.

    Even when it doesn’t work, it’s almost a traffic-zen like state–not trying to ride the car in front of you, and going with the flow.

  • Jeff

    gravatarNov 27, 2006
    1:59 pm

    I agree with Omri. Being a recovering LA driver. I have always tried to leave some space. It is just a better driving habit. But, when you do leave that space it is always filled by someone thinking that it is going to get them further faster. When Omri brought up cheaters, I clearly pictured the many offenders driving over islands and on the shoulder in order to get ahead. I think everyone knows this rule but are more afraid of being taken advantage of when a cheater approaches. Maybe if we spread the word and remind everyone of the benefits of a slow flow vs. stop and go, which eventually leads to accidents. I am all for it but will everyone else cooperate.

  • Erno Hannink

    gravatarNov 27, 2006
    10:10 pm

    In Europe it is the same. I live and have to deal with traffic difficulties in the Netherlands. Since I am in Sales, it is part of my living. The last few months I have become more relaxed in the car. We will all get there, and the people in front of you also want to get there, maybe 5 minutes later but what does that matter in a lifetime? There will always be people that are in more of a hurry than you are.

    Leaving a gap between you and the car in front of you will give people the possibility to merge in when two lanes come together. Also it gives you the ability to let go of the gaspaddle and not hit the breaks immediatly. People react on the breaklights in their lane. So if you let go and try to use the breaks as less as possible by mainting a large enough gap with the car in front of you, it will minimize the traffic wave issue. So from my personal experience I can say it works.

    Oh and “other people will fill up the gap” and “it needs to be done be everyone”, yes that is correct. However, You will just have to start doing it. And other people will follow.

    Of course mass transport (ie. public transpotation) is also part of the remedy that I believe in. And that it quite good in Europe. The only thing that needs to be changed is to make public transportation for free. So that everyone is really tempted to take the train, bus …

  • Chanpory

    gravatarNov 28, 2006
    12:17 am

    Thank you everyone for the insight. I think this is the year for me to finally learn how to drive, despite how frightening it seems.

    I agree with many of you about the need for better public transportation. Here in San Francisco, it seems like public transportation, instead of getting cheaper, is becoming more and more expensive.

  • dave

    gravatarDec 4, 2006
    5:36 am

    What a terrible idea! This is exactly what you get when someone is trying to review memos and talk on the cellphone while they drive – a single car moving slower than traffic with a large gap in front! I have seen this on I270 in STL, the Eisenhower in Chicago, and the Beltway in DC. How about an alternative suggestion: On the GW Parkway in DC commercial traffic (i.e., trucks) is prohibited. The traffic moves continuously at high speed (unless you come across a bus!). the inability of large vehicles to easily maintain speed (on steep slopes, etc) or change speed (when traffic accelerates) appears to me to be a major contributor to the problem.

  • bill beaty

    gravatarDec 9, 2006
    12:57 am

    Ya gotta actually READ the traffic article, not just leap to conclusions. It’s not about any theory, it’s about what actually happens when I try different things. I’m commuting, so I’m very familiar with each of the jam I approach. I’m bringing in relatively enormous spaces (enough for ten or more cars, not just a tiny space that one or two people could fill.) And most important, I’ve tried the trick hundreds of times over several years and watched it in action. In most jams it works more than half the time. In a few jams it never works, and in some jams it’s guaranteed to always work. And in some rare jams, just one single driver can evaporate the gigantic mile long jam. It depends on the particular situation. Anyone who says “it doesn’t work” needs to tell us how many typical jams they encounter while commuting, how many times they’ve tried it, and how many times it failed/succeeded. (I suspect that some people only try it once, and only open up a tiny space, and as soon as someone jumps into that space, they give up and never try it again.)

  • Di

    gravatarDec 10, 2006
    12:39 am

    Yes, it does work. I use this technique all the time – to me it makes more sense to simply move slowly than to not move at all. It ends up cutting down on quite a bit of my time in traffic.

  • JFitpzatrick

    gravatarJan 7, 2007
    4:44 am

    Several years ago there was an interesting article in Discover magazine about traffic flow/traffic theory. The most interesting part was the relationship of traffic flow to solids, liquids, and gases. A complete jam up is like a solid, atoms rigidly fixed. A sparce highway is like a gas, atoms widely spaced and random in movement. Smoothly flowing traffic is a liquid, a range of motions and speeds with a more reasonable span between atoms.

    The scientist discussing the theory believed (and I agree) that the more liquid like the configuration of traffic the smoother it flows. This would fit with the description in your post of cars maintaining a large, but not absurd spacing in between each other.

  • dave

    gravatarNov 16, 2007
    11:45 am

    bill beaty:

    “Ya gotta actually READ the traffic article, not just leap to conclusions. It’s not about any theory, it’s about what actually happens when I try different things…”

    Well, actually I read the article several times. I appreciate the fact that your personal experiences are important to you – everyone’s are, including mine. I am sure that you did not “…leap to conclusions…”, but read my response and carefully considered it, as I did your response. What puzzles me is that I am not sure that you address any of the issues I raised. I am disappointed that you do not find them of more interest, as they do represent 40 years of professional driving in 12 states, which includes Manhattan, the Chicago Loop, and Washington, D.C.



  • Aaron

    gravatarMay 16, 2008
    11:23 am

    The method is depending on their being enough non-cheaters in the next lane over to not fill in your space and help create a plug. In Seattle where I used to live yes I would say it is possible. In LA where I live now, forget it. The difference in the way people drive is night and day. 90% of the drivers are so-called ‘cheaters’ and you just can’t open huge spaces.

    Plus in your article, you refer to places like the 520 and the ship canal bridge as being ‘north of Seattle.’ Unless things have changed in the past few years the northern border of Seattle is 145th Street.