It may be easier and less costly to improve the humans than to build endless lanes.
Traffic on our metro freeways is increasingly terrible. We now rank as the 16th worst metropolitan area in the country, and the problem is getting worse with each passing year. Add in the effects of an expanding, aging population, compounded by deteriorating infrastructure, and it becomes clear that no matter how much money we spend on road construction, we’re never going to get this problem under control with current approaches.
Improved mass transit will help to a point. But perhaps another solution lies in changing the way we drive. While changing the driving habits of millions of humans may seem impossible, a simple 10-point plan would certainly improve things:
1) New drivers should receive specific training in freeway driving and be required to prove their competence on busy highways before becoming licensed.
2) We should educate existing drivers on exactly how they are required to drive if they’re going to use public freeways.
3) Create a merge zone where ramps enter roadways, with the expectation that every driver in the right-hand lane will let one car merge in. This alternating approach is already used in construction zones. People refusing to let cars merge, or trying to force multiple cars into a small opening, rapidly brings traffic to a halt. When traffic stops on busy roads, it takes a long time to get everyone back up to speed. Competition should be replaced by cooperation.
4) Changing lanes in a manner that causes traffic to be stopped will automatically be seen as a traffic violation.
5) Using turn signals when changing lanes will be mandatory. It is already the law, and trying to guess when someone is about to change lanes is stressful for everyone.
6) No cellphones (or texting) should be allowed. Use technology to ensure that cellphones can’t be used in moving vehicles.
7) “Slower traffic keep right” should be a law. This also means that trucks would be banned from the left lane on most sections of our metro highways. That is already done in some European cities and it makes a big difference. Truckers would certainly object and claim that they pay a lot of taxes to use our roads. But they overlook the fact that the very reason our highways break down so fast involves the massive weights that heavily laden semis impose on the road surface.
8) To think that humans will always obey traffic laws when they think no one in authority is watching is just silly. We can’t afford an army of officers to enforce these common-sense suggestions. So the solution must come from technology. Outfitting the vehicles of countless citizen volunteers with cameras similar to those installed on police vehicles would ensure that there is always a good chance that someone will capture traffic infractions on tape. When volunteers see someone driving in a way that impedes the flow of traffic, they can push a button that will send the footage to appropriate authorities.
9) Rather than flood our overloaded court systems with a host of bad freeway drivers, we can create a demerit system. After 10 episodes of troublesome freeway driving, the offender would face appropriate consequences.
10) The common-sense consequence for causing traffic problems on our freeways should obviously be to deny the offender access to the freeway system. Cars that accumulate enough demerits — regardless of who is driving them — would be given pink license plates. Driving on a freeway with such plates would be punished by heavy fines or the loss of the driver’s license.
We can anticipate a lot of opposition to a program like this. An awful lot of drivers are self-centered and entitled, and they think that they owe nothing to the common good. But the alternative would be to keep spending billions to keep adding lanes to our freeways in hopes that this will eventually take care of the problem. And even cities with six lanes running through them in each direction are subject to the toxic effects of bad freeway drivers.
Kevin Turnquist, of Shoreview, is a psychiatrist.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.