Good Question: Does Changing Lanes Save You Time?

By Jason DeRusha, WCCO-TV

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — There are two kinds of drivers: those who pick a lane and stay in it, and those who obsessively change lanes, looking for an advantage.

But does changing lanes during rush hour really save you time?

“There’s some fairly complicated mathematics involved for proving this,” said Dr. Bryan Dawson, chair of the math department at Union University in Tennessee.

He wrote a study on Highway Relativity, looking into whether we accurately perceive the speed of the lanes of traffic around us.

“If you’re in heavy traffic, it’s really hard for an individual to really determine which lane is faster,” he said.

Researchers call it “lane envy.” It’s the feeling we have when we look to our left and see cars zipping past us.
Psychologists talk about the “highway illusion” where people think they’re moving slower than other traffic, partially because when we’re moving slowly and being passed, we have more time to look from side to side. That’s easier to observe than the vehicles we pass and leave in the dust.

University of Minnesota civil engineering professor Gary Davis suggested that if we are taking a drive that normally takes 10 minutes at 60 miles per hour, and then end up on that same drive going 50mph, we perceive that as a longer delay than it really is.

“Now it takes me 12 minutes to make the trip, for a delay of 2 minutes. This is less time than I spent picking out my shoes and socks this morning. But if I want to go 60 and I’m forced to go 50 I can feel like I’m being delayed for the entire 12 minutes,” he said.

The math professor found a similar psychological effect: “If you’re traveling slower than the average, the effect is magnified, it seems the average speed of other drivers is larger than it really is,” he said.

Because we only observe what’s out our window, we tend to extrapolate that to have some meaning about the average speed for an entire trip. The reality is, all lanes tend to average out to be moving at approximately the same speed.

This matters, because around 3 percent of all fatal crashes in the U.S. involve changing lanes or merging. That’s thousands of deaths. Many of which could presumably be prevented, if people weren’t making unnecessary lane changes.

“Sometimes you change lanes and you wish you hadn’t. I’ve been there many times,” Dawson said.

  • Irvine Homes

    I think changing lanes is a bit faster than to stick to one lane but we must change our speed if we want to get faster is also one concept.

  • Paul

    LOL Did you ever change lanes in a grocery store.

  • Phid

    There is a certain lane which is better to be in if driving north on 94 past Elk River in traffic.

  • Fred

    It doesn’t matter which lane you choose as there are so many idiots that they occupy all lanes. Oooh, look, a cop with his lights on. Let’s stop and look to see what’s going on, then text all my friends that there are pretty red flashing lights, so let’s all drive 5 miles per hour.

  • barney

    All I knnw is that I have an unerring ability to choose the wrong lan!

    • Smart Alec

      As well as the wrong keyboard keys.

  • claire bear

    Changing lanes is not that bad. I don’t do it often but once3 in a while. What the real problem is are the lane jockeys always jockeying for an open route. They drive too fast, change lanes recklessly and frequently, after they pass you, you can see them weaving in and out of traffic ahead of you. Six or seven lane changes in the span of two minutes? That isn’t safe.

  • Green

    They forgot to add there are also other types of drivers. 1. the incompetent driver who favors a certain lane every time they get on the hwy like the left lane which is designed for express. 2. The driver who doesn’t care about anything that’s happening around them and proceeds to go at what ever speed they desire causing congestion and become an obstruction to every driver trying to get around them at traffic speeds.

    I think that if drivers would plan a few steps ahead we could reduce fatalities and congestion. The best way to avoid an accident is to not be there. And sometimes that means not following big rigs, distracted drivers and utilizing a more assertively mentality of getting yourself in the best position in traffic.

  • hmm

    I usually don’t change during rush hour simply because both lanes of the road I use are fairly full. Once in awhile you do get behind some idiot and then obviously I will change but otherwise I stick to whichever lane seems fastest at the beginning of my journey.

  • K.

    I agree. I have found, sometimes, that the person who changes lanes may be doing so because he thinks it’s faster. But, invariably, so do about 3 other people somewhere ahead of him. So then, he makes the lane change (along with others) which cause that lane to now slow a little making the lane he just left speed up. So then, he needs to switch back so that he is back in the faster lane, etc. etc. etc. Best advice……….STAY PUT! In the final analysis, it won’t make that much difference and it’s a lot safer.

  • Iraqivet38

    here is an Idea, how about lowering the speed limit during “rush” hour or peak usage times? 494 would flow smoother with less accidents if it went from 55 to say 35MPH during those periods of heavy congestion.

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