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When You’re Stuck in Highway Traffic, Which Lane Moves Faster?

It may not be the one you expect.

When you’re stuck in highway traffic, which lane moves faster?

Most people think left. “But I’ll give you a little secret,” a driver told me this week, as he took me to the airport on a crowded highway. “The right lane moves faster.”

How could that be, I said? The right lane is where cars enter the highway.

“As soon as everyone gets on the highway, they rush to get into the fast lane,” he replied. And when too many people try to enter the fast lane, it becomes the slow lane.

I admit, I find this idea deeply appealing. It’s the highway version of a wise business philosophy — that the greatest opportunities are the ones others overlook. Zig where others zag. In fact, I just made a video about a woman who did this: She opened a coffee shop in a town of 175 people, and it is thriving (thanks in large part because it's near a busy highway).

But is this really true for the highway? Is it better to stay in the “slow” lane, because everyone is jamming up the “fast” lane? It definitely was during our ride: We advanced significantly faster by staying right.

So when I got home, I looked it up. And that’s when things got interesting.

What we know about traffic

First of all: When you’re stuck on the highway, you’re likely to experience what researchers call a “roadway illusion.” You will think that other lanes of traffic move faster than yours.

This leads people to constantly change lanes, hoping to advance just a tiny bit faster. But it’s a hopeless exercise, according to traffic researchers Donald Redelmeier and Robert Tibshirani. Their study, published in Nature in 1999, showed that multiple lanes of traffic move at the same average speed.

So why does it always seem like the other lane moves faster? Here’s their answer:

This occurs because vehicles spread out when moving quickly and pack together when moving slowly. A driver can therefore overtake many vehicles in a brief time interval, but it takes much longer for the driver to be overtaken by the same vehicles.

But that still doesn’t address our question: Is there a substantive difference between the left-most lane and the right-most lane?

I couldn’t find any definitive studies on this, but I did find a Los Angeles Times column written about it in 1992. A reader had written into the paper, observing the same thing that my cab driver did. “Freeways are designed so that the leftmost lane is supposed to be the fastest moving lane,” the reader wrote. “But in heavy traffic, the fastest lane is the right-most one.” They asked the paper for an explanation.

And of course, because this is Los Angeles, highway traffic theories are a very worthwhile area of investigation.

The Times reporter called two traffic experts — California Department of Transportation traffic analyst Joe El-Harake and Professor Mike McNally of University of California, Irvine’s Institute of Transportation Studies. They had no definitive answers either; one insisted that the second-to-most-left lane is always the fastest, but cited no studies on it.

And yet, they did offer some credence to my driver’s theory. The right lane really can move faster during traffic jams, they said. Then they offered three explanations why:

Reason 1: The “Spurt” Factor

During traffic jams, many cars may exit the highway at the same time — and of course, that all happens on the right lane. When cars exit, they create a big gap that allows the cars behind them to “spurt” forward. “Vehicles in the adjoining lanes have no similar opportunity,” the paper reported.

Reason 2: New Right Lanes

Sometimes freeways gain extra right-hand lanes, which were designed to help ease congestion. This helps the drivers on the right move faster, as they take up this new space.

Reason 3: Just Like My Driver Said…

“Drivers may simply be jamming up those left lanes because they believe that they’ll move faster than the right lanes,” the Times reported.

Boom. Score one for my driver.

So here's my takeaway: Is the right always faster during traffic jams? Probably not, because nothing is guaranteed. But is it a good theory? Yes. And frankly, sometimes a good theory is what we need the most when we're stuck, and we feel a lack of control, and all we want is a little confidence that we're heading in the right direction.

Eventually, no matter what, we'll get there.

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Cover credit: Getty Images / Bernhard Lang