Thursday, December 28, 2006

Peloton Dynamics Driving on I-5

Yesterday's trip home on southbound I-5 was remarkably smooth considering how many vehicles were on the road. Most of the time it was like being in a pack of really skilled and considerate bike racers. The group always goes best when everyone's behavior is focused on the common good.

In a bike race, when you're out in the wind going backwards, you always appreciate the guy who lets you back in line (especially if he also gives you a little push). It's a small gesture, and maybe you and he are the only ones who recognize it, but it helps the group dynamic. You remember those guys, and you return the favor(s) when you can.

Same thing when driving on the open freeway. For example, a couple times yesterday I found myself in the right lane coming up behind a slow truck, with a lot of cars going faster on my left. In that situation I don't want to just insert myself into a small gap in front of someone on the left. I was in a minivan with marginal acceleration, so I would inevitably cause a bunch of braking if I did that. But a number of times I didn't even need to worry about it, because an alert driver in the left lane recognized the situation early enough and smoothly opened up a gap for me to cleanly accelerate into. That dynamic is subtle--the driver opens the gap early enough that I didn't have to slow much for the truck in front of me in the right lane, and the gap is opened slowly so that traffic behind him (or her) in the left lane only needs to slow slightly. I get around the truck, move back over to the right lane, and everyone continues along smoothly.

Contrast that situation with impatient drivers in the left lane that don't open up any gaps, and an aggressive driver in the right lane that swerves into a too-small gap. You then get a bunch of sharp braking and a major slow-down that propagates backward through traffic and maybe even causes a few people to swerve off the road to avoid rear-ending the car in front. It's just like the rider in a bike race who chops people in corners when there isn't room, or abruptly swerves into the pack and causes a bunch of chaos behind.

I imagine almost everyone thinks of themselves as a good driver. I think most bike racers probably really are, if for no other reason, because they understand the traffic-flow dynamics of a group.

Speaking of traffic, if you're in California you should bookmark this streaming video site of traffic web cams. It's a great resource to see how freeways are flowing, and it's also kind of cool to see the weather around the state.

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