When the Crunch family was visiting my parents in Vermont, the Cap’n and I visited the very wonderful Northshire Bookstore in Manchester. The store is a meandering sort of place, and on our way through the bestsellers section (a place I rarely stop), the Cap’n paused to peruse a paperback volume entitled Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt. Mary Roach of the New York Times Book Review called it “a surprising, enlightening look at the psychology of human beings behind the steering wheels. …Required reading for anyone applying for a driver’s license.”
I frowned, imagining this a most unpromising book, but the Cap’n put it in our shopping basket, and proceeded to enjoy it immensely over the next few weeks. He began making interesting suggestions to traffic problems we and our friends have where we live. For our friends’ street that is residential, but a cut-through from one main artery to another, the answer to speeders might be not to add stop signs or speed humps (between which irritated drivers speed even worse), but to get rid of the painted center line. For our street, which is a dead-end and more of an extended driveway than a street, with cars parked higgledy-piggledy along every curb and edge, he recommended screwing a baby carriage into the middle of the street to slow down drivers who recklessly turn corners at high speed and don’t watch for children. I realized from the Cap’n’s comments that this was not some weird sort of book glorifying the wonders of the road. As I sat down to read it myself, I discovered it romanticizes neither the road nor the driver.
Instead, drawing on extensive psychological, sociological, and traffic research, Vanderbilt discusses many of the thorny issues associated with drivers and driving in chapters entitled “Why Does the Other Lane Always Seem Faster? How Traffic Messes with Our Heads,” “Why You’re Not as Good a Driver as You Think You Are,” “How Our Eyes and Minds Betray Us on the Road,” “Why Women Cause More Congestion Than Men (and Other Secrets of Traffic),” “Why More Roads Lead to More Traffic (and What to Do About It),” and my favorite, “When Dangerous Roads Are Safer”—among others. This book, as Vanderbilt points out, is not only about North America; it discusses traffic trends, design, and innovations all over the world.
I learned an enormous amount from reading it. The following are some of the facts about driving that I found most interesting:
- Late mergers at construction sites actually help traffic flow more quickly by utilizing the second lane as long as it’s open and allowing two lanes of traffic to merge “zipper-like,” eliminating lane jockeying and rear-end collisions, the most common type of crash in construction zones.
- Vanderbilt describes the many types of distractions drivers succumb to when driving—cell phones, conversations, fiddling with the radio, reading directions, reading text messages, even working on a laptop computer (mounted on a desk over the console). What I hadn’t thought of was the great distraction of eating. By 2004 there were 504 food products with “go” in the label, and fast food restaurants recorded up to 70% of their meal sales through car windows. Clearly, driving nowadays is about much more than simply getting from point A to point B.
- Anonymity on roads encourages aggression—in a study, a car was placed at an intersection. When it didn’t move, convertible drivers took longer to honk, honked less, and for shorter duration than drivers enclosed in their cars. This aggression leads to attitudes like cutting off other drivers and speeding through neighborhoods where we don’t live.
- Vanderbilt takes to task the world “accident,” used as if driver intention is the most important thing in a crash (Vanderbilt’s word of preference). Not every crash is outside human error, like a tree fallen on the road. When St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock was killed in 2007 when his rented SUV slammed into a tow truck stopped on the highway, its lights flashing, at a previous accident scene, and Hancock (who had crashed his own SUV a few days earlier) “had a blood alcohol concentration nearly twice the legal limit, was speeding, was not wearing a seat belt, and was on a cell phone at the time of the fatal crash,” was this really an “accident?” An “accident,” according to Vanderbilt, is something unpredictable and unpreventable. “The word accident,” he writes, “has been sent skittering down a slippery slope, to the point where it seems to provide protective cover for the worst and most negligent driving behaviors. This in turn suggests that so much of the everyday carnage on the road is mysteriously out of our hands and can be stopped or lessened only by adding more air bags (pedestrians, unfortunately, lack this safety feature). … There is a huge gulf in legal recrimination between a person who boosts his blood alcohol concentration way over the limit and kills someone and a driver who boosts his speedometer way over the limit and kills someone.”
- A small Dutch town underwent a traffic makeover to try to slow traffic entering it from a highway. The traffic engineer responsible did something mavericky: instead of separating motor vehicles from pedestrians and cyclists, the way a traffic engineer would normally do, he narrowed the road and made them all share it. This slowed car traffic more successfully than any number of signs could possibly have done.
- Roundabouts in Israel are common, especially outside the major cities. I used to wonder why this was so—were traffic lights too expensive to install or maintain? Then I learned some of the advantages that roundabouts have over standard light-controlled intersections: you can run a red light, but you can’t run a roundabout; cars must necessarily slow to enter the roundabout, where often drivers will speed up going through an intersection to catch a yellow light; unlike at a four-way stop, it is clear who has the right of way—the vehicles already in the roundabout (Israelis would all be absolutely certain they had arrived at the intersection first and disaster would ensue if there were such intersections here); and if traffic is light to moderate, someone approaching a roundabout doesn’t even have to stop in order to enter the roundabout, keeping traffic flowing more efficiently from all directions.
- Corruption in government, no matter where one is in the world, plays a role in observance of traffic laws and, by extension, traffic fatalities. Finland, whose government has a very low corruption rating, has sliding scale traffic fines, a system which once cost a wealthy Internet entrepreneur $71,400 for going 43 mph in a 25 mph zone. A referendum to repeal this sliding scale system was voted down, suggesting that Finns believe this system to be a fair one. (It should be noted that Finland has the highest number of women in cabinet-level positions of any country in the world.) Mexico City, meanwhile, a high-scorer on the corruption scale, phased out male traffic cops and replaced them with women. As a result, the practice of cops soliciting bribes instead of issuing tickets is gone, collection of moving violation fees has risen 300%, and the female traffic cops are given handheld units to issue tickets, accept payment (including credit cards), and photograph violators.
- The media suggests that the biggest threat to life in the US is terrorism. Looking at actual numbers, however, records kept since the 1960s show that fewer than 5,000 people have died as a result of terrorism, whereas 40,000 people are killed in crashes annually. In other words, the number of people killed on September 11, 2001, is less than are killed on the roads each month. Many citizens who support curtailing civil liberties to counter the threat of terrorism are the same citizens who oppose traffic measures to reduce road deaths, such as lower speed limits, red light cameras, tougher blood alcohol laws, and stricter cell phone laws.
- In the 1990s the UK reduced road fatalities by 34%; in the same time period, the US only managed to reduce them by 6.5%. The UK’s success was due mostly to lowering speed limits and installing cameras. If the US had done what the UK did, 10,000 lives would have been saved.
- With greater speed comes greater risk of death. Someone in a crash at 50 mph is 15 times more likely to die than at 25 mph (NOT twice as likely, as simple mathematics would indicate). A crash at 35 mph causes one-third more frontal damage than at 30 mph. The potential crash risk at 60 kph (about 37 mph) doubles for every additional 5 kph.
Vanderbilt’s last paragraph of the book is particularly powerful:
On the road, we make our judgments about what’s risky and what’s safe using our own imperfect human calculus. We think large trucks are dangerous, but then we drive unsafely around them. We think roundabouts are more dangerous than intersections, although they’re more safe. We think the sidewalk is a safer place to ride a bike, even though it’s not. We worry about getting into a crash on “dangerous” holiday weekends but stop worrying during the week. We do not let children walk to school even though driving in a car presents a greater hazard. We use hands-free cell phones to avoid risky dialing and then spend more time on risky calls (among other things). We carefully stop at red lights when there are no cars, but exceed the speed limit during the rest of the trip. We buy SUVs because we think they’re safer and then drive them in more dangerous ways. We drive at a miniscule following distance to the car ahead, exceeding our ability to avoid a crash, with a blind faith that the driver ahead will never have a reason to suddenly stop. We have gotten to the point where cars are safer than ever, yet traffic fatalities cling to stubbornly high levels. We know all this, and act as if we don’t.
Like everyone else who drives, I took driver’s ed and driver’s training. I got out of a ticket once by spending a long day at a “high risk driving course.” (I’d been cited for an “unsignaled lane change” while everyone else had been ticketed for speeding.) I lost two cousins to a drunk driver. I’ve been in two minor crashes in my 26-year driving career. (One was entirely my fault.) I used to have a 25-minute commute and many days would find myself drifting out of awareness, suddenly “waking” on a part of my commute with no memory of how I got there.
Vanderbilt’s book discusses in interesting detail all of these experiences, and many more. I found I learned much more from reading it than I have in all my years of driving. While the Cap’n purchased it (we’re not likely to see it in Israel), I don’t think it’s a must-own book. However, if your local library has it, for those who enjoy non-fiction and who have the least amount of interest in what happens when a person gets behind the wheel of a car, it’s definitely worth a read.
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