Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says about Us)

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9781415956083: Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says about Us)

A New York Times Notable Book

One of the Best Books of the Year
The Washington Post · The Cleveland Plain-Dealer · Rocky Mountain News

In this brilliant, lively, and eye-opening investigation, Tom Vanderbilt examines the perceptual limits and cognitive underpinnings that make us worse drivers than we think we are. He demonstrates why plans to protect pedestrians from cars often lead to more accidents. He uncovers who is more likely to honk at whom, and why. He explains why traffic jams form, outlines the unintended consequences of our quest for safety, and even identifies the most common mistake drivers make in parking lots. Traffic is about more than driving: it's about human nature. It will change the way we see ourselves and the world around us, and it may even make us better drivers.

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Amazon Best of the Month, July 2008: How could no one have written this book before? These days we spend almost as much time driving as we do eating (in fact, we do a lot of our eating while driving), but I can't remember the last time I saw a book on all the time we spend stuck in our cars. It's a topic of nearly universal interest, though: everybody has a strategy for beating the traffic. Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) has plenty of advice for those shortcut schemers (Vanderbilt may well convince you to become, as he has, a dreaded "Late Merger"), but more than that it's the sort of wide-ranging contrarian compendium that makes a familiar subject new. I'm not the first or last to call Traffic the Freakonomics of cars, but it's true that it fits right in with the school of smart and popular recent books by Leavitt, Gladwell, Surowiecki, Ariely, and others that use the latest in economic, sociological, psychological, and in this case civil engineering research to make us rethink a topic we live with every day. Want to know how much city traffic is just people looking for parking? (It's a lot.) Or why street signs don't work (but congestion pricing does), why new cars crash more than old cars, and why Saturdays now have the worst traffic of the week? Read Traffic, or better yet, listen to the audio book on your endless commute. --Tom Nissley

Questions for Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic

Q: Was this book really born on a New Jersey highway?
A: Yes, though it could have been any highway in the world, where countless drivers, driving on a crowded road that is about to lose a lane, have had to make a simple decision: When to merge. For my entire driving life, I had always merged "early," thinking it was the polite and efficient thing to do. I viewed those who kept driving to the merge point, to the front of line, as selfish jerks who were making life miserable for the rest of us. I began to wonder: Were they really making things worse? Was I making things worse? Could merging be made easier? Why were there late mergers and early mergers, and why did people get so worked up about the whole thing? In that everyday moment I seemed to sense a vast, largely under-explored wilderness before me: Traffic.

Q: Is it true that the most common cause of stress on the highway is merging? Why of the myriad things to cause stress on the road is this at the top?
A: Merging is the most stressful single activity we face in everyday driving, according to a survey by the Texas Transportation Institute. People who have done studies at highway construction work zones have also told me of extraordinarily bad behavior, triggered by this simple act of trying to get two lanes of traffic into one. Sometimes, it’s simply the difficult mechanics of driving — trying to enter a stream of traffic flowing at a higher speed than you are, for example. Drivers, to quote a physicist who was actually talking about grains, are objects "who do not easily interact." But I also think there’s something about the forward flow of traffic that makes us register progress only by our own unimpeded movement; as in life, we seem to register losses more powerfully than gains, and registering these losses boosts stress.

Q: You say that, "For most of us who are not brain surgeons, driving is probably the most complex everyday thing we do in our lives." How so?
A: Researchers have estimated there are anywhere from 1500 to 2500 discrete skills and activities we undertake while driving. Even the simplest thing — shifting gears — is a decision-making process consuming what is called "cognitive workload." We’re operating heavy machinery at speeds beyond our long evolutionary history, absorbing (and discarding) huge amounts of information, and having to make snap decisions — often based on limited situational awareness, guesses about what others are going to do, or a hazy knowledge of the actual traffic law. It took years of research, for example, by some of the country’s top robotics researchers, to create expensive, sophisticated self-driving "autonomous vehicles" that are basically mediocre beginning drivers that you’d never want to let loose in everyday traffic. When we forget that driving isn’t necessarily as easy as it seems to be, we get into trouble.

Q: Drivers polled in America say the roads are getting less civil with each passing year. ‘Road Rage’ is an ever more common term. What is to blame? Hummers? Or are we just getting ruder?
A: Every year, more people are driving more miles, so one reason for the sense that the roads are getting less civil is simply that there are many more chances for you to have an encounter with an aggressive or rude driver. It’s tough to put numbers on it, but I happen to feel, like many people, that behavior has gotten qualitatively worse — surveys have suggested, for example, that using the turn signal is an increasingly optional activity. Leaving aside the issue that not signaling is illegal (because, let’s face it, we’re never going to be able ticket everyone who doesn’t do it, nor do we probably want to), it’s one of those small things, requiring little effort from the driver, that makes traffic flow more smoothly — I myself have honked countless times at "idiots" slowing for no apparent reason, only to seem them eventually make a turn. It’s antisocial behavior, the equivalent of having the door held open for you and saying nothing in return. So why don’t people signal? My immediate theory is that they’re using a cell phone and are distracted or physically incapable of signaling. But a deeper reason, I suspect, may be seen in the surveys of psychologists who measure narcissism in American culture. They find, as time goes on, more people are willing to say things like "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place." Traffic is filled with people who think that roads belong only to them — it’s "MySpace" — that being inside the car absolves them from any obligation to anyone else. People are glad to tell you that their child is a middle school honor student — as if anyone cared! — but they deem it less important to tell you what they’re going to do in traffic.

Q: So much of what you uncover about life on the road seems counterintuitive. Like the fact that drivers drive closer to oncoming cars when there is a center line divider then when there is not; that most accidents happen close to home in familiar, not foreign, surroundings; that dangerous roads can be safer; safer cars can be more dangerous; that suburbs are often riskier than the inner city; the roundabout safer than the intersection. When it comes to traffic why are things so different from how we instinctively perceive them?
A: I think part of the reason is it’s easy for us to confuse what feels dangerous or safe in the moment and what might be, in a larger sense, safe or dangerous. We have a windshield’s eye view of driving that sometimes blinds us to larger realities or skews our perception. Roundabouts feel dangerous because of all the work one has to do, like looking for an opening, jockeying for positioning. But it’s precisely because we have to do all that, and because of the way roundabouts are designed, that we have to slow down. By contrast, it feels quite "safe" to sail through a big intersection where the lights are telling you that you have the right to speed through. We can, in essence, put our brain on hold. But those same intersections contain so many more chances for what engineers call "conflict," and at much higher speeds, than roundabouts. So when what seems quite safe suddenly turns quite dangerous — will we be as well prepared? Similarly, we might be reassured that that yellow or white dividing line on a road is telling us where we should be, but how does that knowledge then change our behavior, to the point where may actually be driving closer — and faster — to the stream of oncoming traffic? Accidents are more likely to occur closer to home. Mostly this is because we do most driving closer to home, but studies do show that we pay less attention to signs and signals on local roads, because we "know" them, yet this knowledge actually give us a false sense of security.

Q: What were some of the things that most surprised you in researching this book?
A: Things that surprised me the most were those that challenged my own long-held beliefs as a driver, like that "late mergers" simply must be somehow worse for the traffic flow at work-zones, that roundabouts were dangerous places, that warning signs were there because they must be working, that car drivers were more of a contributing factor in truck-car crashes than truck drivers. It was also quite a revelation to learn about the many ways our eyes and our minds deceive us while driving, the ways we "look but don’t see," the way we sometimes believe, to slightly change up the warning our mirrors gives us, that objects are further away than they actually are. Then there were the things I had never really thought about, but were surprising nonetheless — that drivers seem to pass closer to cyclists when those cyclists are wearing helmets, how the ways in which drivers honk at each other contain subtle indications of status and demographics, how much traffic on the streets is simply people looking for parking. I was also unpleasantly surprised to learn how far the U.S. had slipped in terms of traffic safety in the world, where it was once the leader.

Q: You write, "The truth is the road itself tells us far more than signs do." So do traffic signs work?
A: We’ve probably all had the somewhat absurd moment of driving in the country, past a big red barn, the pungent smell of cow manure on the breeze, and then seeing a yellow traffic sign with a cow on it. Does anyone need that sign to remind them that cows may be nearby? To quote Hans Monderman, the legendary Dutch traffic engineer who was opposed to excessive signing, "if you treat people like idiots, they’ll act like idiots." Then again, perhaps someone did come blazing along and hit a crossing cow or a tractor, and in response engineers may have been forced to put up a sign. The question is: Would that person have done that regardless of the sign? The bulk of evidence is that people don’t change their behavior in the presence of such signs. Children playing, School zone? People speed through those warnings, faster than they even thought, if you query them later. To take another example, the majority of people killed at railroad crossings in the U.S. are killed at crossings where the gates are down. If this is insufficient warning that they should not cross the tracks then is a sign warning that a train might be coming really going to change behavior? At what point do people need to rely on their own judgment? We as humans seem to act on the message that traffic signs give us in complex ways — studies have shown, for example, that people drive faster around curved roads that are marked with signs telling them the road is curved. We tend to behave more cautiously in the face of uncertainty.

Q: What is "psychological traffic calming"?
A: Traditional "traffic calming" relies on putting big, visually obvious obstructions in the road, like speed bumps, or the wider, flatter speed humps. Unfortunately, since the bulk of drivers, like tantrum-throwing toddlers, really don’t like to be calmed, a lot of these don’t work as well as hoped, or produce negative, unintended consequences, like the fact that people will raise their speed between the bumps to make up for the time lost slowing to traverse the bump. So-called "psychological traffic calming" basically tries to calm traffic without drivers even realizing they’re being calmed. It does so through things like reducing the width of roads, using pavements of different colors or textures, even removing center-line dividers, which studies have shown is one way to get drivers to slow down. Even creating visual interest along the side of the road, a no-no in traditional traffic engineering because it’s a "distraction," can be used to calm traffic — when something’s worth seeing, after all, people slow down. The most radical approach is removing any signage at all, and forcing drivers to rely on their own wits, as well as the dynamics of human interaction, as has been seen in some interesting experiments in the Netherlands.

Q: You cite 20 miles per hour as the speed at which eye contact becomes impossible. How central to understanding traffic, and human communication generally, is this statistic?
A: Eye contact is a fundamental human signal — all kinds of studies have shown, for example, how people are more likely to cooperate with one another when they can make eye contact. When we don’t have it, when we become anonymous, we not only lose some of that impulse towards cooperation, we seem to become susceptible to all kinds of behavior we might not otherwise engage in. In most driving situations, of course, we lose eye contact, and have to make do with our rather limited vocabulary of traffic signals. At much slower speeds, however, like those seen in the experimental roundabouts in the Netherlands were most signage has been stripped away, it is fascinating to see how intricately all the traffic can interweave — exactly because some of those human signals have been restored.

Q: We’ve all had the experience of the annoying passenger who can’t stop critiquing our driving when we know are driving just perfectly. Then again, we’ve all been the back seat driver to people who think they are driving perfectly when we know for sure they are about to kill us. What accounts for the way drivers vs. passengers experience the same ride?
A: First of all, I should stress that passengers, even annoying back-seat drivers, are good for us: Statistics show that people are less likely to crash when they are accompanied in the car (except, interestingly, teen drivers). But there’s several interesting things going on between drivers and passengers. For one, driving as an activity often lacks regular feedback — we’re often not aware in the moment of how close to a crash we almost came, or our own culpability in that. Secondly, drivers tend to self-enhance. They all tend to think they are better than average, or at least average drivers — it’s been called the "Lake Woebegone Effect." Passengers are not caught up in this dynamic — there’s no such thing as a "better than average" passenger — nor do they feel themselves joined to the mechanics of the car, the way a driver does. Brain scans of people doing simulated driving have even revealed different results from people acting as simulated passengers. In the end, a back-seat driver, like it or not, is providing feedback, the same way someone can view footage of their golf swing to learn what they couldn’t see in the moment.

Q: You talk about numerous experiments going on around the world to study traffic, what are some of the ones that you found most interesting?
A: One of the most fascinating things that is happening, thanks to technology like TiVo style cameras and feedback sensors, is that researchers are becoming increasingly able to study how drivers really behave on the road, learning curious details about, for example, how much time drivers spend looking in certain places — forward at the road, in the rear-view mirrors, away from traffic, at the radio, etc. With companies like DriveCam, this information is actually being used to coach drivers — beginners but also experienced drivers — based on the crashes they narrowly avoided. The work of Hans Monderman, who unfortunatel...

About the Author:

Tom Vanderbilt writes about design, technology, science and culture for Wired, Slate, The New York Times and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn and drives a 2001 Volvo V40.

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