A few years ago there was a study of traffic in major cities, and they were graded from A+ to F. An F would be traffic similar to a hurricane evacuation of the Grand Banks. Boston was ranked a D-.
This boils down to a commute of over an hour each way, in the toughest traffic in America. Now before people from LA, or DC, or New York start bitching about their traffic is worse than Boston's, It's not. I used to travel a lot for my last job, and spent weeks in those cities. For me it was a freaking VACATION!
Ok, so how do you deal with traffic. First off knowledge is power. Knowing there is a breakdown in the zippah lane (a.k.a. the HOV lane) before you get in it is priceless. Likewise having on-the-fly traffic updates saves your ass. I use the traffic function on the Maps applet on my iPhone for this.
Aside from the day to day changes, you need to learn the traffic pattern for your ride in. I have to take 93N in (God damn environmentalist shitheads didn't let I95 come into Boston!) so I have exactly one way to get into town. I know that at certain points some lanes are much faster than others. By using these lanes I can shave 20 minutes off of my commute, compared to staying in one lane the whole ride in. So as you commute pay attention! Keep your eyes open for patterns in the traffic then exploit them. Know when and where the breakdown lane is open for use, know how many people you need for the Zippah lane. Learn about road work before you're late for the big presentation.
Knowing backroads to and from work is invaluable. Being able to bypass clogged traffic arteries in an evacuation is nice, but so is sliding around the overturned truck on 128... From almost any point on my ride home, I have at least one alternate way of getting home. If that level IV Bioterrorist Lab starts spawning mutant zombies, I'll be getting home :)
Now how to drive. The first thing is to be aware of your surroundings all the time. Women are notorious for only looking in a mirror just before they are going to change lanes. I check all my mirrors at least once a minute. If the meatball to my left decides to see if our two cars can occupy the same space at the same time, I'll know what is around me so I can take the appropriate action to defend myself. Then again, by keeping aware I would have determined he is a meatball, and made sure I wasn't near him.
I cannot stress that enough. I've seen cops pull up behind someone in the left lane waiting for them to get out of the way, riding their ass hard, and have them drive for miles without a clue they had a Crown Vic on their ass. Then the cop figures they are going to be late, and pulls them over and write them up the MOAT (mother of all tickets). Now the cop has a reason for being late, so his ass is covered.
When driving, try to stay with the pack, but on the lead edges of it. This allows you the protection of the herd, while having the best visibility of the road ahead. Cops almost never pull over speeders in traffic, so as long as your not drawing attention to yourself you'll be just fine. If traffic is moving, up here traffic flows at 75-85 mph, so as long as we are all going at a good clip I won't be making many changes. Once we start to slow I'll be looking for lanes that are moving better than others, and exploit them.
The "two second rule", or "one car length of space for every 5 mph of speed" is absolute horseshit. (In my best 300 impersonation) This is Boston! I leave just enough space so the guys in the lanes next to me cannot cut me off without hitting me, the car in front of me, or both. It's about survival on the freeways, and nice guys finish last. It's not like I'm out there trying to cut everyone off, I'm just trying to stop people from cutting ME off, then having them slam on the breaks so I'm at fault. The only way you can drive like this is to look through the car's windows in front of you and see what's going on with the car in front of that one. The extra reaction time is so you don't rear-end the car in front of you.
Because of the razor's edge we hardcore commuters ride, you will not see us shaving, reading a book or newspaper, texting, applying make-up, or using a laptop while in traffic. Even CD changing is done during the "stop" portion of traffic. Yet I have seen all of the above done by people in traffic.
There is a courtesy extended between hardcore commuters that the average traveler has not a clue about. We all use our blinkers so everyone knows what's going to happen. Granted, you might get a single blink before I switch lanes, but I did use the blinker. A wave after a particularly close lane change smooths things over. I drive with aggression, but it is sensible aggression. I have seen plenty of aggressive drivers, cutting from one lane to another as I out distance them by staying in the best lane for that section of road.
Also, we don't use the breakdown lane unless it's allowed. I have personally seen people intentionally hit cars driving in the breakdown lane because they knew the driver in the breakdown lane would be at fault. Now if your a hundred yards shy of an exit you are going to take that's different, I've been pulled over by cops and just given a warning once I proved that I was in fact taking the exit to get where I was going.
Now over the years I have been involved in all kinds of incidents, but I have a step 9 for insurance which is the lowest you can get. It might seem that I am a lunatic behind the wheel, and you may very well be right, but I'm a lunatic with a plan. My level of aggression is directly proportional to risk vs. reward. If I am already late then I'll ease up quite a bit. I will still switch lanes to the pattern of traffic, but I'm not going to run yellow lights or anything. No matter what you do, no matter how early you leave you will be late sometimes. There is nothing you can do if they close the highway for a life flight. So relax. Take a deep breath and try to get where you are going in one piece. The hardest thing to do is switch from Boston Traffic mode on M-F to regular driving on the weekend.
I was in Kansas City years ago, and the site manager was from Rhode Island. We hit it off pretty good, and he wanted to treat the office team and I to a lunch at a fancy Chinese restaurant. So I drove my rental with the manager and two secretaries in the back. I'm zipping across town on the highway during their version of rush hour traffic, and discussing things with the manager when I heard a quiet shriek from the back. The manager turned to check on the two secretaries, and one of the gasps "Oh my GOD he is going to kill us!" The other one says threw clenched teeth, "He drives just like YOU DO!" The manager and I proceeded to laugh our asses off. The secretaries were not too happy as the manager said to them "I was just going to yell at Natog for driving like a pussy!"