Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and what it says about us)
By Tom Vanderbilt
This book was recommended to me by an STA bus driver while on the way to work one morning. I requested it from the EWU Library, but had to wait about two months to get it. Then, when it finally came in, I found out I could only keep it for one week since it was in such high demand. No worries, though; the book is just as fascinating as described; I had no trouble finishing it quickly.
Here are some of my favorite tidbits:
• We should all be late-mergers. You know the situation: You are on a multi-lane highway and there is construction ahead. Signs alert you to a lane ending up ahead. You dutifully merge into the other lane, then watch in disgust as other drivers whiz by in the ending lane and merge ahead of you in line. It feels like they are cheating, but they aren’t. When everyone merges early and gets in line politely, it slows things down for everyone because drivers aren’t using the full capacity of the road (one whole lane is empty long before it ends). Those drivers who are zipping ahead and ‘cutting’ in line are actually speeding things up for everyone. Thanks to them, traffic will flow smoother through the construction zone (and safer! There are fewer collisions when drivers merge late) and you will get to your destination faster.
• It’s not just your imagination--studies have shown that people take longer to leave a parking space when someone else is waiting for the spot. Interestingly, when queried, most people claim that they move faster when someone is waiting for their parking spot, but upon observation, it turns out they actually slow down. It’s as if the space suddenly becomes more valuable because someone else wants it.
• This one is obvious to anyone who has traveled internationally: The culture of a place is reflected in the way we drive. In Japan, a country of politeness and respect, traffic is a smooth and orderly affair. In Cameroon, where there is so much corruption that laws can’t be taken seriously, people drive more erratically. This is true on a more localized basis, as well. A “Pittsburgh Left” refers to left-turning drivers darting in front of oncoming traffic very quickly, just as the light turns green (zipping across before the oncoming cars have picked up speed). A “California Roll” (aka California Stop or a Sushi Stop) refers to slowing at stop signs, but not coming completely to a stop.
• In Finland, traffic fines were found to be unfair and regressive (they take up a larger part of a poor person’s income than a rich person’s) so they changed the laws so that fines are calculated based on after-tax income. This sliding-scale system means that some wealthy speeders have had to pay upwards of $50,000 for going 43 in a 25. Sounds outrageous to most Americans, but the Finns have resisted attempts to put caps on the fines. It is widely-supported there.
• We often think of big-rig trucks as being dangerous on the road, but in actuality, truckers tend to be very safe drivers. The problem is that those of us in personal vehicles drive badly around them. In most cases, when cars and semi-trucks collide, the car (or, rather, the driver in the car) is found to be at fault. One careful study found that in 70% of cases, the driver of the car had sole responsibility in the crash.
• In America, on average, someone dies in a fatal car crash every thirteen minutes. Roads are more dangerous at some times than others, however. In an average year, more people are killed on Saturday and Sunday from midnight to 3am than all those killed during those hours the rest of the week. In other words, just two nights account for the majority of deaths. The Fourth of July is, statistically, the most dangerous day of the year to be on the road. Superbowl Sunday is a big killer too, but only after the game, not before. And the traffic fatality rate is generally higher in the city with the losing team.
• In a highway or freeway, low-speed drivers are more likely to be involved in accidents than high-speed drivers. It doesn’t follow, however, that people who drive too slow are the problem and we should raise speed limits (as many have argued) or enforce minimum speed. That argument assumes that people who are going slowly are doing so because they want to and not because they need to for some reason (congested traffic, about to turn, experiencing some sort of vehicle problem, etc). Nearly half of rear-end crashes involve cars that have stopped--presumably for a good reason and not just to get in the way of people wanting to go fast.
• The “Grand Rapids Dip” is a term that refers to results from a study done in Grand Rapids, MI in the 1960s. The study found that people with a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of .01 to .04 actually drove more safely than those with a BAC of zero. This is because drivers who know they have had a drink or two are more aware of the possibility of impairment (and punishment), so they are drive more cautiously. Alcohol affects driver performance, but also driver behavior. Which would you rather encounter on the road? The sober driver on his cell phone speeding off to a meeting or a mildly-impaired driver watching carefully for obstacles and obeying the speed limit?
• Crash statistics have shown that more people die in car crashes in America who aren’t wearing seatbelts than those who are wearing seatbelts, even though 80% of Americans wears seatbelts all the time. It’s not just that drivers are less likely to survive a crash if they aren’t wearing a seatbelt. It is also true that the type of person who drives without buckling up is also more likely to speed and engage in aggressive driving behaviors, so their risk is multiplied.
• Feeling safe is a bad sign. If you are in a car that feels safe, on a road that feels safe, you are much more likely to engage in unsafe behavior such as speeding and driving aggressively. This is why roundabouts have turned out to be such a great thing, even though drivers don’t like them. Because we are unaccustomed to roundabouts and because they are fairly complex to navigate, we have to slow down, be alert, and drive cautiously through them (usually grumbling about how dangerous they are the whole time). In a regular, lighted intersection, we pay very little attention to what is going on; we just drive when the light turns green and hope no one else is doing it wrong. So the roundabout feels more dangerous, but is actually much safer. Likewise, when we drive in cars that feel safe (trucks, SUVs, etc), we tend to start to drive more dangerously in reaction to that feeling of safety. Studies have shown that people using studded snow tires drive faster in the snow than those without--though they have some added traction, they more than compensate for that benefit by driving less carefully.
I’ve gone on too long now, I know. There are so many other good points in the book (I didn’t even go into the stuff about why driving in super-congested Delhi is relatively safe and why driving in Montana is so dangerous!), but how about instead of me writing them out one by one, you just go out and get the book for yourself?