Merging on the highway is a good way to get yourself killed

David Desper, of Pennsylvania, would have gotten to wherever he was going about 10 seconds later had he let Bianca Robinson merge as two highway lanes became one. Instead, he shot her in the head and will likely be right on time for prison.

It’s the latest and most egregious case of road rage in America, but it’s hardly a solitary event because Americans have a psychotic break with reality when someone challenges their pick-up truck superiority on the roadway.

Young Bianca had just gone shopping for supplies needed for her first year of college. Now, she’s dead.

“This is the story of a savage and senseless murder,” said Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan. “Somebody didn’t want to give way. Somebody didn’t want to merge into a lane of traffic. And because of that, a young woman is dead.”

Perhaps nothing angers the American driver like someone obeying the law when trying to share the road. If we’re honest, we’ve either felt threatened by someone wanting to merge, or we’ve gotten the one-finger salute when we’ve tried to.

“There’s an old cliché in driving studies,” says Tom Vanderbilt, author of Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us): “‘A man drives as he lives.'”

This is not a traffic problem, he says. This is a human problem.

The road, more than simply a system of regulations and designs, is a place where many millions of us, with only loose parameters for how to behave, are thrown together daily in a kind of massive petri dish in which all kinds of uncharted, little-understood dynamics are at work. There is no other place where so many people from different walks of life–different ages, races, classes, religions, genders, political preferences, lifestyle choices, levels of psychological stability–mingle so freely.

And we’re bad at it. Really bad at it.

Compounding the problem is the zipper-merge, the correct, but terrorizing, idea that if people wait until late in a merge zone to scoot over, traffic will flow better. Assuming you don’t get shot, of course.

Nothing on the road seems to inflame people like the zipper merge. A MnDOT study some years ago found 15 percent of drivers surveyed actually straddled the lanes to keep people from passing them to merge later down the line.

This may be just another thing that’s generational. A MnDOT 2013 survey found 25-to-34 year old drivers are more comfortable with the zipper merge than their elders.

So maybe there’s hope in the future that an 18-year-old kid can go shopping with her mother and grandmother, her whole world still ahead of her, without getting shot in the head for trying to get home.

But not yet. Better just to be an early merger and let the self-appointed merge police feel better about their lives. Because they’ve got guns.

Related: How police built their case against accused road-rage killer (Philadelphia Inquirer)

  • Gary F

    Just about every story of a shooting these days has the obligatory “he has a good kid” quote from a family member or neighbor, No he’s not, he killed someone.

    • I think this is one of the ways, though, that we say to ourselves “it can’t happen to us because we’re good.” I think the reality is that “good kids” who lose their mind behind the wheel is more like us than we care to admit.

      • Gary F

        Its just about every shooting, whether an inner city gang member with a long list of arrests or some knucklehead white guy in a pick up. Almost every story has some quote like that from a family member.

        I’m looking forward to a Law and Order episode on this. Jack McCoy and Adam Schiff arguing about the zipper merge because some defense lawyer is using it to get his client off of murder charges. Then, in some backroom deal,the perp gets a reduced sentence because of the argument over the zipper merge.

      • Rob

        Plus, seeming like a good guy might have been helpful when Desper applied for and got his gun permit.

        • prufrock

          He was a good guy with a gun. Makes sense.

      • Rob

        I’m guilty of that. I usually do a pretty good job of maintaining my equanimity when encountering tailgaters, but I have been known to share my middle finger with them on more than one occasion.

        • Jack Ungerleider

          I usually just share my brake lights with the tailgaters.

    • Doug

      He is 28 y.o., hardly a “kid.”

    • lusophone

      Yes, i agree, you do see that comment almost always. I always think to myself, of course he was a good guy to his friends and relatives, that’s a given for most of us.

    • Frank Lee

      I am always reminded of the Jokers line from the first Batman movie:
      “Now it is true what they say about Boss Grissom, he was a murderer and a fiend. On the other hand he has a lovely singing voice”

  • Jack

    We’ve been on a road trip for over a week and I can honestly say that I’m looking forward to coming home to Minnesota drivers.

    Aggressive driving is all over the place. I keep telling my driver/spouse to drive as prescribed by the road signs and not like the rest of them. On this trip we’ve seen the righteous zipper merge preventer, the speed away from a stop for a speeding ticket, no turn signals (maybe cars in the south are missing that feature?), and other traffic misdeeds.

  • lusophone

    My thought when I see these stories is usually there is escalation before the violent act and if just one side of the confrontation cooled down, nothing this drastic would have happened. I believe this because I drive myself and I know even if someone cuts me off and even if it’s malicious, which most times it probably isn’t, I have the choice to let it go. As I get older I am improving at letting it go (still need to improve though), but I know that when I was in my twenties I wasn’t very good at it.

    I know this sounds like I am blaming the victim, which is not my intention. But I always remember my driving instructor from 30 years ago telling me there are no winners in an accident, as corny as that may sound. Even if you do have the right-of-way, are you really going to put yourself in danger’s path when you don’t have to?

    • Jack

      Watched this in action a couple days ago. Person was driving slow in passing lane and another vehicle seriously tailgated (less than a foot from the back bumper). My driver (we were in the slow lane) assumed the person not relinquishing the passing lane was being a jerk.

      Finally the tailgated driver went into the slow lane. My spouse’s attitude changed when he realized it was an elderly female driving.

      If we could all just assume good intent/elderly driver, we would be much better off.

      • Rob

        As long as an elderly driver can still read and knows the rule of staying to the right if going slower, there’s no reason for that driver to be camped out in the left lane. That way, she avoids being tailgated, and those wishing to drive faster/more aggressively have a clear path. Everyone’s a winner.

        • Jack

          I totally agree with you. Just pointing out a recent experience where hubby drew a conclusion that was false.

      • lusophone

        I mostly match the speed of those around me. I like to find open spaces and try to maintain that space around me, so maybe speeding here and there. My dad, however, drives at or below the speed limit almost always. Many times when I am a passenger in his car I am nervous with the driver behind us, almost always tailgating, even in the right lane on the highway. My dad has the patience of a saint and not a malicious bone in his body, but I’m always nervous that someone behind us thinks he’s being a jerk and trying to impede him/her.

        • Rob

          The best way to avoid being tailgated is to go the speed limit in the right lane. It isn’t foolproof, but those wishing to go faster – even those going just a couple miles faster than the speed limit- will readily go around you, and spend little or no time thinking you’re a jerk.

          All you do by going as fast as other people who are speeding is to virtually guarantee that you’ll be tailgated. And if you get in a crash while speeding, I guarantee you that no cop is going to cut you any slack when you say “I was just trying to match the speed of the other traffic.”

          • lusophone

            It seems like driving the speed limit is considered driving too slow and almost an offense to others on the road.

          • Rob

            Survey a few state troopers and see what they have to say about that perspective.

          • lusophone

            Yes, I understand what the troopers think, I’m just commenting more about what seems to set other drivers off that can lead to road rage incidents.

          • Rob

            Anybody that road rages against those who are merely following the rules, deserves to be tasered. Otherwise, anarchy rules.

  • DJ Wambeke

    Pretty sure the zipper merge is just about the most un-midwestern thing ever. Oh sure, it’s “efficient”. But is it “polite” in that midwestern “You go first. No, you go first. No, I insist, you go first” sort of way? No, and it projects grabbiness in just the perfect dose to inflame that other midwestern specialty: passive-aggressiveness. Bless your heart, MN DOT, but in a state where (at least in the rural areas) it’s still common for the person with the right-of-way at a 4-way stop to wave the other person through “just to be nice”, it’s gonna be awhile before we get the hang of the zipper merge.

    Yes, I’ll out myself as a zipper merge chicken. But at least I no longer get mad at those who do it “the right way”.

    • MikeB

      MN DOT needs better signage about the zipper merge. “Use both lanes until merging” etc. Real basic and simple so people finally get it in about 10 years

      • BJ

        They added that about 3 years ago….

        • MikeB

          Not statewide. I drive through a couple everyday. I see more blocking the open lane than using it. Better signage is needed

          • Jim in RF

            You’re right. Signs are very inconsistent and don’t message zippering as the right way to do it.

    • Barton

      strangely, a couple of places that had “lane ends” signs no longer have those (8th St in Mpls as two lanes become one on Hwy 55, as an example). And I’ve found that people just DO the zipper merge thing automatically in those places b/c everyone realizes “oh Crap!!” at the last minute.

      The zipper merge thing also works on Cedar Ave as it hits Lake Nokomis from the south. I don’t know why it just works there… maybe it is b/c there is a stop light? or the soothing lake you are about to cross over?

      • Jerry

        What doesn’t work is that stupid left turn in front of Fat Lorenzo’s.

    • lusophone

      It seems like the zipper merge is more prevalent where the traffic flow is heaviest. Maybe I’m wrong in my observation, but I have noticed that it takes place more smoothly with more traffic. When you have more sparse traffic flow those in the lane that will continue feel like nobody should be passing in the lane that is about to end. I dunno, maybe I’m full of it.

  • Chris

    What is obvious here is that in a time gone by no 28 year old would be driving around with a legal firearm on a routine basis. But now the NRA has convinced him and millions of others he needs to. Impulse plus ready access to a gun kills a lot of people in this country, including by suicide, and its completely unnecessary.

  • Capt. Norb

    Living in a greater Minnesota town where there are only two merge lanes I don’t often encounter this problem. But we have more than our share of jacked-up pickup truckers. (I’m not referring to farmers or tradesmen who actually need a truck but those who’s whole self identity and worth is tied to their motor vehicle.) The worst of the bunch are those sporting Cummins diesel engine logos in the back window.

  • mgresist

    I live off Penn Ave and 394. When getting on 394 to 94, there really is no choice but to do the zipper merge. People who don’t do it cause a major backup on the on-ramp and block people just trying to get to the Dunwoody exit. So, people, just calm down and let everyone on and we’ll all get where we’re going safely.

  • Chris

    Can’t help but notice you didn’t actually respond to my point. Millions of guns have been sold in the past 20 years and there is a cost for that.

  • Minnesota

    He was described by witnesses as blonde to light brown hair, too far from the truth to help, even among those who knew him but would never have suspected this even with a more accurate description, given his calm demeanor even under stress. They got the age range about right, though, mid-twenties to early thirties.

    But I’d say that the speculation in the article about hope for smoother merges in the future due to the youngins having a better tolerance for the zipper merge is definitely out there a ways; he wasn’t 30 yet and this is a young and dumb thing by and large. The over thirty crowd just doesn’t shoot their fellow citizen-strangers in public, in numbers like the teens and twenty-somethings do.

  • Teresa Jonesy

    My pet peeve is people who won’t take their foot off the gas for one second so that someone else can merge. On the other hand, the zipper merge is a nice idea but as far as I can see, only works in cartoons.