Line Patrol
The O Pine

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© 2002 Brian F. Schreurs
Even we have a disclaimer.

If I ever meet Dr. Moore, I'm gonna kick him in the nuts.
So you're at a movie theater, and there are two ticket lines. Then one of the ticket-takers leaves, so there are still two lines but only one ticket-taker. What happens? Well, the lines merge using the zipper rule (one from one side, then one from the other side, then one from the first side...). And if you have only just purchased your ticket, and must now decide which line to join, which one do you choose? You're not stupid; you choose the short one.

These things are not hard, and line decorum works very well when we're all face to face. Yet somehow, all hell breaks loose when you put each person in a car.

This summer's interstate repaving project was a fascinating case study. For the project, the DOT closed down one lane of the interstate for a couple of miles, forcing two lanes' worth of cars to merge into one. Realizing that this would cause backups at peak hours, the DOT posted signs warning of the lane closure about two miles out from the actual merge point. What happened next could never happen in any line on Earth other than a line of cars.

People merged into the through lane before the closed lane ended. Way before. A mile and a half before. One point five miles of two-lane interstate, with one lane moving at 5 mph and the other lane completely empty, as though no one noticed it was there. A steel-bodied, fume-spewing snake of humanity sitting as testament to the unshakable belief that no one will let another car merge later, so you'd best find a position in line now. Why, a man could be stuck at the entrance to the construction zone for hours if he's not careful, the line seemed to cry out.

This driver has more faith in humanity than that; I presume as a matter of course that there are still people out there who are willing to follow the zipper rule, and allow traffic to merge. In fact, I presume that most drivers still believe in the zipper rule; it's only their belief in other drivers' belief that they doubt -- that is, Joe Bob knows that he would always allow someone to merge, but has some doubts that any other driver will let him merge. This lack of faith in humanity is what causes otherwise-sane drivers to stack up single-file for 1.5 miles before a merge zone. Confident that most people are basically good, I chose the short line, just like I would at a movie theater.

Now, we've all seen the situation where the interstate is in a state of gridlock because of a traffic accident, and the more impatient drivers use the emergency lane to bolt for the nearest exit -- only to have their escape blocked by a tractor-trailer with a couple feet of truck hanging over the line as a 100-ton blockade. A self-indulgent exercise of self-righteousness, amusing to those parked nearby, seemingly clever until the vehicle trying to get through the emergency lane happens to be an ambulance. Oopsie.

I came across an absurd variation on this performance. Apparently, it's not enough for some people to simply line up miles before a merge zone with a completely empty lane next to them. I came up on a man in a Ford Escort wagon, trying desperately to disallow anyone from using the short line. Imagine a guy in that movie theater, physically blocking access to the shorter of the two lines: "Get to the end of the long line, you ungrateful wretch! You'll stand in the long line and like it!"

This Ford Escort was pacing itself alongside a Jeep Grand Cherokee, which, by its motions, seemed to be driven by a person wishing very much that he was anywhere else but alongside a hyper little Escort. The Escort steadfastly remained in the empty lane, matching the speed of the Jeep exactly -- starting when the Jeep started, stopping when the Jeep stopped. Stuck behind it, arms waving unfriendly gestures, was a Dodge Ram truck (a large and fairly powerful truck) followed by a Cadillac Seville (a large and powerful sport sedan).

After a while, the truck grew weary of the Escort's attitude, and moved to the emergency lane to pass it. The Escort darted to the right to block, then started driving straight down the line to put half a car in each lane.

The Seville backed down a little bit, apparently giving up on the idea of getting by. The Escort and the Ram exchanged rude gestures.

As the long line slowed for another stop, the Seville suddenly lunged forward with a mighty roar. The Escort immediately moved to block this intruder -- despite the fact that the Seville couldn't have fit between the Escort and the line of cars anyway -- and simultaneously came to a screeching halt, in order to match the pace of the now-stopped Jeep. This left the emergency lane wide open, with the Escort both pointed the wrong way and at a complete stop. The Ram let 'er rip and took off through the hole. The Seville had carefully left itself room to maneuver behind the Escort, so the driver yanked hard on the wheel and peeled around the Escort. I laughed. The amount of mind-games I'd witnessed in the last two minutes would feed a pack of ravenous psychology majors for a month.

I met no resistance as I passed the Escort myself. Evidently his self-righteous world had been shaken just a little this day.

It's hard to figure out where to start or stop pointing fingers in a situation like this; there's certainly enough boneheadedness to go around. But, my gut instinct is to wonder what kind of person has the time to worry about whether other people might get in a shorter line, or to force the strange concept that equality has to mean that everyone suffers equally. Evidently being behind the wheel curbs his inhibitions, much like some quiet people turn into belligerent drunks -- it's hard to imagine him making such a scene in line at that movie theater. Or Disney World. Or anywhere civilized.

Faith, it turns out, is often rewarded. I was graciously allowed to merge with traffic when I reached the construction zone. People are basically good. Just watch for the head cases.