Bumper to Bumper
How to calm the traffic waves
Seattle Times staff reporter
And, he claims, it can be done without investing a cent in building new highways, erecting more signs or busting bad drivers.
"You can be the Drano man," says Beaty, who claims his solution to unclogging traffic is so simple it's almost laughable: Rather than driving up to a traffic jam and stopping, leave space ahead of your car so that by the time you reach the jammed traffic the cars are moving. That keeps the cars behind you driving at the same pace, makes merging smoother and keeps traffic flowing.
Beaty, who's lived here since 1990, said he's single-handedly unclogged traffic jams by his simple experiment and has posted his methods on his Web site, amasci.com/amateur/traffic/traffic1.html.
"Boredom led me to fantasize about the traffic being like a flowing liquid, with cars acting as giant water molecules," writes Beaty on his Web site. "When traffic is heavy and unstable, slight braking by a single driver can cause the traffic to freeze into a gigantic crystal."
He equates it to the old movies when the Three Stooges try to go through a doorway at the same time.
Beaty, 44, said he first became fascinated by traffic waves when he was returning from the state fair in Monroe five years ago. Traffic was jammed and he could see no reason for it, other than the habits of drivers who would speed up and then slow down when traffic stalled. He figured if he maintained a steady speed and left space between his car and the one ahead of him, the jam would be eased. And it was.
"People drive fast until they have to slow down," said Beaty, and that's a mistake.
As an experiment, while he was driving through stop-and-go traffic on Highway 520 at rush hour he decided to slow down and leave a huge gap in front of his car. He timed his drive so that by the time he arrived at the next "stop wave," the red brake lights ahead of him were turning off.
He noticed that in the lane next to him, cars were still stopping and starting, but in his lane drivers were continuing with no stalls.
"My car had been eating traffic waves," he said. "If you gradually build up lots of empty space before encountering the slowdown, perhaps you can eat the whole slowdown ... . By going slower you're going faster."
Beaty knows changing driving habits is a daunting, perhaps impossible, task.
"It's a testosterone thing: I'm going to get ahead of you," he said. "You need to let the road-rage people go by you until you collect the nice people behind you."
When he's not trying to fix traffic, Beaty maintains instruments for the University of Washington's chemistry department. He once worked as a software engineer and lives in Ballard and catches the bus to work.
"I live in Ballard. There's no fun traffic jams," he said.
Fun traffic jams? For Beaty it's an intellectual exercise to create what he calls Zen traffic. "Instead of being trapped in hell, you can look for a situation where maybe you can do good."
For Beaty this often means driving about a half-mile slower than the speed limit and leaving about five car lengths in front of him when traffic is heavy.
Beaty does have his fans, drawn to his Web site. One is Franklin Hu, a software engineer in Redmond, who has been following Beaty's suggestions and has come up with a few of his own.
"We could minimize the mess at merge points if we all followed the simple rule of allowing one car to merge in front of us when approaching a congested merge zone," Hu said. "This is a simple and courteous rule which will allow traffic to easily merge together like the teeth of a zipper."
Hu drives Interstate 90 to work and he always leaves two extra car lengths in front of him. He said he did his own experiment several years ago on Highway 520. Frustrated by the eastbound traffic that was backing up onto Interstate 5, he stuck up a small sign on the road that said, "leave space for merging traffic."
"Mysteriously the traffic jam disappeared," said Hu, adding that the traffic ran smoothly for the two weeks the sign stayed up. Hu is convinced his sign made the difference. He put a similar sign up last summer on the West Seattle Bridge with the same result.
"We have to get people to drive in a way that maximizes the freeway capacity," said Hu. "Even if you build new roads, idiots driving will clog them up anyway. This is something that individual drivers can do."
This is a message from the state Department of Transportation: That reader board off Interstate 5 south of Tacoma urging you to vote for Referendum 51 is not owned, or condoned, by the DOT.
Spokeswoman Linda Mullen said the department was criticized for engaging in political activity when contractors posted similar signs opposing Initiative 695 in 1999. Mullen said she hoped to counter similar complaints in this election season.
As a government agency, DOT is prohibited from campaigning for or against any measure or candidate. The reader board, which resembles a state highway sign, was erected by a contractor, said Mullen, not the DOT.
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