Mar 3, 2014

#46 Tailgating in the Fast Lane
All Rights Reserved © 2005 Thomas W. Day

Let's discuss this "fast lane" of which many of you speak, and some of you rant hysterically. Where in the state does it exist?

I've been a few places where something sort of resembling a fast lane is observed, non-rush hour moments in Southern California, for example. Denver has a fairly quick fast lane on the urban freeways, too. Las Vegas freeways are pretty quick moving and the far left lane is consistently flowing faster than the speed limits. Phoenix whips along at near-Mach speeds in the left lane and you can plot turns in the road and required lane changes in geological time. Something those places have in common is a moderately strict adherence to multi-lane roadway exit consistency. Chicago and Houston, on the other hand make the Twin Cities look orderly. Boston multi-lane roads are right out of the New York Times crossword puzzle. Urban Minnesota has a freeway system that was designed (to loosely and abusively use the word "design") by drunken professional wrestlers. The Cities were old and well established before the multi-lane roads came into existence (except along the I494 and western I694 mazes, where the disorder is inexplicable), the highway "planners" were politically well-connected, but technically challenged, and the disorder in the highway layout is the result.

The locations of exits on the freeways and Interstate bypasses in both of the Cities and Duluth are about as predictable as Minnesota spring weather. Right side, left side, in the middle, who knows what's next? If they could find a way to do it, Minnesota highway designers would make us exit the freeway in five dimensions. So you go-fasters wonder why people who don't know the local roads well don't hang out on the right lane? They might be expecting a road change and they're anticipating yet another wacky highway split. Those "slow" moving vehicles might know the roads well and be expecting road repair to appear in the middle of the freeway, with 250 feet of notice, jamming all traffic into the far left lane. Or, maybe, they are drivers simply traveling at the legal limit with a rational expectation that they have a right to the lane at that speed. The fact is, legally, "the fast lane" is the lane doing no more than the speed limit with a reasonable expectation that the lane will remain traveling in the direction the current highway designation indicates.

Your pressing need to travel faster than the posted limit is pretty much your problem. Your lack of planning, aggressive driving habits, or general personality disorders do not constitute a reason for other drivers to modify their lane position.

But that doesn't keep the aggressive types from behaving like dope-frenzied whackos. It might even make them a little more irrationally aggressive. You can read about their frustration every where Minnesotans find a place to write to, and about, each other. When sport bikers get together, virtually on the internet or in reality at local bars, the lack of "fast lane etiquette" is as common a topic as the long Minnesota winter and depressing lack of places to race. Etiquette is something I'd like to see more of on our roads.

Towards the end, maybe past the end, of this last riding season, I was moving fairly quickly west on I94 coming back from Wisconsin on a late November evening. The temperature had fallen a lot faster than I expected and I was doing my best to get home quickly and safely before my tires and I froze. Exiting north on I694, I picked up a tailgating hitchhiker. A big, black club-cab pickup practically parked in my tail light and stuck there through the entrance ramp. I was moving fairly quickly, but he made a solid attempt at staying within reach of my bike for the next mile. I tried slowing down to let him pass, that apparently irritated him and he moved close enough that I considered the possibility that he was trying to kill me. So, I took advantage of the limited horsepower available in my 650 and put a few hundred yards between us in the next mile or two. I guess that didn't sit well either because when I slowed back to normal speeds, he was right back on my tail light. I left the freeway at the next exit and lost my 6,000 pound luggage rack. Lane position wasn't the issue. I was in the right lane and he was incapable of changing lanes on a six lane freeway and wanted me to adjust my road position to accommodate his inability.

Maybe 70mph doesn't seem like real speed. Since most of us travel from point A to Z, five to seven days a week, at approximately 70mph, that velocity probably feels pretty tame. Evolution hasn't yet redesigned humans to cope with that kind of speed. The fastest humans run at about 25 feet per second. The quickest horse can't manage much more than triple that speed and can only maintain that momentum for a portion of a mile. Only a little more than 100 years ago, a 50 mile day was considered "breakneck speed," although you can break your neck at a lot lower speeds. 70mph translates to about 103 feet per second, in human comprehension time. Most of us take about a second to realize there is a hazard to avoid, we blow another second in deciding to apply the brakes or considering the option of steering around a hazard, and, finally, we make our correction and our abilities and our vehicle contributes their bit to the reaction time. Assuming a fairly mild reaction is needed to avoid the hazard, almost every one of us will have traveled a minimum of 300 feet in the process. A major correction, like coming to a complete stop could use up a 1,000 feet, assuming you manage to stay shiny side up.

Tailgating is a fool's delusion. If you imagine you are in control of your vehicle while traveling anywhere closer than a two second safety margin in perfect driving conditions, you're delusional. Any blip in the terrain, the momentum of the vehicle we're tailgating, or our own vehicle's stability will turn tailgating into a near-instant disaster. Tailgating does not, consistently, convince the person in the lead vehicle to speed up or change lanes. Irrational behavior does not, necessarily, inspire rational behavior.

Here in Minnesota, we're close enough to being "East Coast" to be stuck with the associated political corruption and historically poor planning that plagues the "old coast." Since the state politburo has decided that uncontrolled, irrational growth provides some magical, indefinable benefit to someone/somewhere/somehow, our mess of roads are going to become more crowded, more poorly organized, slower moving, less scenic, more packed with unskilled hostile commuters, and a lot less friendly to motorcycles. You might as well get used to it. If you want to ride the fast lane, consider moving to a place where there is a fast lane. Minnesota isn't one of those places.

June 2005

POSTSCRIPT: In the relentlessly informative and technical, The Upper Half of the Motorcycle, author Bernt Spiegel explains how a line of four cars travelling at 100kph and following with a typical 15m spacing requires approximately 5m more stopping distance for each vehicle in the line: meaning the 2nd vehicle needs 5m more than the first, the 3rd needs 10m more than the first, and the last needs 15m (the exactly following distance) more than the first. With the kind of tact I'm familiar with, he begins this analysis by saying "the completely clueless tend to follow much more closely." The more I hear from the "fastlane" characters, the less sympathy I have for them. As my wife accurately notes, "They drive like they think they are in a video game." More evidence that drivers' licenses are handed out in Cracker Jack boxes and all of the blather about highway safety is just a smoke screen for creating rolling taxation in the guise of policing. 

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