Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt


You kind of wonder how much there really could be to say about traffic that would be all that interesting. For me it turned out to be maybe a little less than the almost 400 pages (counting end notes) of this book. Which is to say Traffic was, if anything, a little better than I expected much of the way, but I felt myself tiring of the subject toward the end.

Vanderbilt’s writing style helps. It’s a conversational kind of journalism that combines anecdotes with statistics. Not so folksy as to come across as hokey, but just enough humor, whimsy and wonder to be appealing.

The book is largely about the psychology of driving, and how traffic engineers and city planners and such try to factor in that human element when they design roads and intersections, post traffic signs, etc.

One of the main things the book brought home to me is that as drivers, most of us base our assessment of risk, and thus how we drive, on the very, very limited evidence of our own past experience. That is, if I’ve never gotten into an accident or had any really scary near misses when trailing the car in front of me by such-and-such distance (or driving x miles per hour over the speed limit on the highway, driving after dark on the poorly lit road near where I live, driving while opening up a salt packet and putting some on the sandwich I just bought, etc.), then it feels safe to me.

Now it may be that if I drive the absolute best, safest I’m capable of driving, there’s a 1 in 100,000 chance I’ll be in a major accident today, and that by doing various other of these not-so-perfect things, that becomes a 1 in 15,000 or 1 in 2,000 or 1 in 400 chance. But in all likelihood, in all of those cases I won’t have an accident, so each such experience gets subjectively processed as another little increment of evidence that that style of driving is fine.

We just don’t often get the kind of feedback through experience that we need to tell us when we’re doing risky things, at least not that we notice and take into account for the future.

Needless to say, we shouldn’t be relying a hundred percent on personal experience for our evidence to begin with. But most of us do most of the time. One partial exception is drunk driving. The message that that is unsafe has been hammered home so relentlessly that even most people who’ve never personally been in an accident while drunk have at least some degree of awareness that it’s dangerous.

But some things that may comparably put ourselves and others at risk (like speeding, or driving while fatigued and needing sleep), just don’t feel all that dangerous until something terrible happens, and maybe not even then.

Related to this, we assign blame in drunk driving cases, but not others. If someone’s reaction time is poor because he’s nodding off at the wheel and he back ends somebody, it’s an “accident.” (There may still be some legal liability, but in terms of how ordinary people talk about it, and how it’s reported in the newspaper, it’s an “accident.”) Whereas if he did the same things because he was drunk, then it’s a criminal act for which he must be condemned and severely punished.

Another recurring theme of the book is that improvements that would seem to enhance safety often have a lot less of an effect than expected.

The problem is if it’s an improvement that drivers recognize as enhancing safety, they’ll typically convert it to a different kind of improvement.

For example, let’s say Highways A and B are identical except A is paved perfectly and has no significant curves, whereas B is a bit bumpy and has an occasional tricky curve, and that if people drove with identical skill and care on both, there would be 20% fewer accidents on A.

What is more likely is that there will be something more along the lines of 2%-3% fewer accidents on A, if that. What happens is people drive a little faster on A since it’s a safer road, or they don’t pay quite as close attention and are more apt to change the radio station or glance at a map.

What they do is in effect trade the safety improvement for the chance to get where they’re going a little sooner, or to get some other minor tasks done.

You also have the phenomenon of people obeying traffic signs but using less common sense and good judgment than they otherwise would in the absence of them. So they’ll drive through a residential neighborhood and dutifully slow down for a block or half block where there is a “Children Playing” type sign, but not where there isn’t, as if children only play near the street right where there’s a sign.

The author makes a pretty good case—or at least quotes experts who do—that in the absence of signs and strict rules, drivers tend to drive more carefully and look out for each other and pedestrians and such, and the result is the same or fewer accidents than you would get with all the constant warnings.

He comes out pretty firmly in favor of toll roads and paid parking, making the case that it’s a real waste of a valuable resource and revenue source to not charge for these things. In effect, keeping these aspects of driving free means that that much more money must be raised in other ways (e.g., income tax, sales tax) from drivers and non-drivers alike.

The point is probably more persuasive than not, but on more of an emotional level I go the other way. It just happens that I have a fierce aversion to paying for parking or going on a toll road. I’ll plan my route going through a big city (like when I’m skirting along the southern edge of Chicago) to avoid all toll roads, even if it means adding considerable time or distance to the drive. And I’ll park several blocks farther from where I’m going to avoid parking meters.

It’s like people who are horrified at the thought of paying retail. They’ll inconvenience themselves by waiting an extra month so that friend of their brother-in-law’s neighbor can hook them up, and they’ll drive across town to make the purchase when the time comes, because they like that feeling of accomplishment of getting a good deal. To me it’s a similar challenge to pay as little in tolls and parking as possible.

One of the fun things about the book is when he talks about driver idiosyncrasies like that. It’s interesting, though, that I didn’t see myself very often in the ones he mentions, and he leaves off most of the oddities of my driving style that I’m aware of. But it still caused me to reflect on them with a chuckle.

Most of my quirks come up most often on long road trips, often taking the form of playing little games with myself to pass the time and keep me focused.

For one thing, I love cruise control. I really, really missed it when I owned a car for several years that lacked it.

What I do is I set the cruise control at the level I want (on the highway, it’s typically at or slightly above the speed limit, so about 68-69 in a 65 MPH zone, 72-73 in a 70 MPH zone, or 76-77 in a 75 MPH zone), and then the challenge is to keep it there for as long as possible.

So that gives me a chance to play little games in traffic. I’ll be moving along at 68, and I’ll see a truck pull into the left lane well in front of me to pass another truck. And I’m trying to figure out if he’s going to get past him and pull back into the right lane before I have to brake. For some reason, in the heat of the moment, in the midst of the “game,” it really matters to me to not have to go off cruise control.

Or there will be someone seemingly eager to pass me, so I’ll pull over into the right lane to let him by. And then he’s only going like 1 or 2 MPH faster than me as I’m coming up on a car in the right lane, and I’m thinking “Dude, pass me if you’re going to pass me. I need to get back into the left lane quick or I’ll have to go off cruise control.”

So I challenge myself by taking away that flexibility of changing speeds and instead relying on everything else I can do to drive safely and effectively.

It’s surprising how much a little thing like that holds my interest. It’s comparable to people getting caught up in some seemingly inane video game. It’s just an artificial challenge or a form of play to keep me from getting even more bored behind the wheel.

Anyway, the topic of all the weird things we do as drivers may not be utterly fascinating, but to me it’s interesting enough to warrant a book like Traffic, especially one that’s as well-written, entertaining and informative as this one.


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