March 29, 2010

Review: Traffic: Why we drive the way we do

Driving is one exception to my general laxity toward rules, safety, and preaching.

I grouse about other drivers often: their failure to use cruise control and observe the conventions of the passing lane; inappropriate following distances; and most recently, driving while calling (which I recently swore off) and texting (which I never did from the get-go).

Among my friends, I feel at ease as a passenger with only two.

And despite Tom Vanderbilt's explanation that most of us aren't as good at driving as we think we are, I will really never be able to relinquish the pride that surrounds my A+ in driver's ed. My instructor Cliff made a point to announce to the class that my grade was the first of its kind in all his teaching years. Katie can back this up.

All this considered, my recent reading of Traffic: Why we drive the way we do, only heightened my sense of duty to spread better driving habits; to continue to preach; to continue to openly and vocally wince at what I considered dangerous habits. Facts and figures aside, the logic and insight and observations of the book impressed upon me the need for continued diligence in driving.

"Required reading for anyone applying for a driver's license," reads the New York Times book review tag line on the cover of Traffic. I agree. In addition to cartography or detective-work I now place traffic engineering and driver's education as candidates for any mid-life career change, should it come.

I found myself consuming the book in tiny chunks because of its ability to provoke thoughts.

And Vanderbilt often references Seinfeld.

From the book:
:: Think of language, perhaps the defining human characteristic. Being in a car renders us mostly mute ... the language of traffic is reduced ... to only the simplest of meanings.

:: Many studies have confirmed this: Eye contact greatly increases the chances of gaining cooperation in various experimental games.

:: Late Merge wa srolled out by traffic engineers in Pennsylvania in the 1990s in response to reports of aggressive driving at merge locations. In this system, engineers posted a succession of signs, beginning a mile and a half from the closure. First came USE BOTH LANES TO MERGE POINT, then a ROAD WORK AHEAD or two, and finally, at the lane drop: MERGE HERE TAKE YOUR TURN.

The beauty of the Late Merge system is that it removes the insecurity or anxiety drivers may feel in choosing lanes, as well as their annoyance with a passing "cheating" driver.

The most surprising thing about the Late Merge concept is that is showed a 15 percent improvement in traffic flow over the conventional merge.

:: A bias creeps into news reports, which are often quick to note, when reporting fatal crashes, that "no drugs or alcohol were involved," subtly absolving the driver from full responsibility.

:: Hans Monderman

:: Instead of speed bumps, which tell drivers to drive as fast as they can before they hit the next speed bump, Engwicht argues that intrigue and uncertainity -- the things that active cities are filled with -- are the best remedies for traffic problems. Put a child's bike on the side of th eroad instead of a speed bump; hang a weird sculpture instead of a speed-limit sign.

:: Monderman's signless squareabout: Since the conversion, the average time to cross the intersection has dropped by 40 percent, even as traffic has increased. More cyclists were using hand signals when moving in the roundabout. More drivers were using their signals, as well. The responsibility for getting through the intersection was now up to the users, and they responded by communicating among themselves. The result was that the system was safer, even though the majority of users, polled in local surveys, felt that the system was more dangerous!
Vanderbilt's conclusion: 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 do not let children walk to school even though driving in a car presents a greater hazard ... We used hands-free cell phones to avoid risky dialing and then spend mroe time on risky calls (among other things) ... We drive at a minuscule 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.

Next reading: The Routes of Man by Ted Conover.

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Blogger JHitts said...

1) As I already told you, I'm really interested in this book. Especially since I have similar thoughts as you do about people doing dumb stuff while driving. I swore at a cop today who didn't signal while making a right turn onto a sidestreet. I mean, come on!

2) I like the idea of a SadBear book review like this. I've been reading a lot more books recently (I spent like a year getting lazy and not reading much besides news articles). But I've kept up recently. I might have to write something about a recent read and get it up here soon.

March 29, 2010 at 11:38 PM 
Blogger M. Perkins said...

Traffic engineering has actually been very much on my mind since moving from Tucson to Florida for two reasons: (1) the timing of lights and (2) left-turn-lights.

(1) Panama City has the worst timing between lights of anywhere I have ever driven. I didn't realize how amazing Tucson was until I moved here. Tucson is essentially one big grid of North-South, East-West streets. Sometimes if you hit it right you can go through ten or more lights without hitting a red.

Panama City, by contrast, seems like it was timed by someone in the middle of an epileptic seizure. Often I will be the first one stopped at a light then drive to the next one only to be stopped two or three seconds before the next intersection, and it will sometimes happen three or four consecutive times. Somehow the light's are timed to make anyone not doing twenty over stop at every light. I hate it. I believe that badly timed lights lead to road rage, murder, and alcoholism.

(2) Tucson's left-turn light follows while Panama City's left-turn light precedes the normal green light. I've thought about the differences. In Tucson people creep out into the middle of the intersection before making a left turn. They are also very likely to turn left when the light goes red even if the left-turn light is off. In Panama City drivers rarely creep forward and rarely will turn after the green.

I think that the prior left-green is probably slightly safer, but I also find it incredibly inefficient. In Tucson left-turn-greens are often not needed, as drivers make their turns during the regular flow of traffic. In Panama City I will be at a light with two other cars total, but we have to go through this entirely unnecessary left-turn-green nonsense.

I've also noted differences in driving habits. Drivers in Tucson are more aggressive (and angry) than here, but I feel like Panama City drivers are much less aware and much more inclined to do stupid things suddenly in traffic.


Had you ever ridden with me, I highly doubt you would have made me #3 on the safe-driver's list. I will say that I am a safer driver with passengers (in that I won't text, talk on the phone, or drive aggressively).

March 29, 2010 at 11:56 PM 
Blogger M. Perkins said...

I didn't realize how long this post was. I feel strongly about the inadequacies of Panama City's traffic lights. It is the most unappealing element of this town to me--and that's saying quite a lot.

March 29, 2010 at 11:59 PM 
Blogger Tony said...

Mark: Driving with passengers is discussed in the book. You fit right in, in that regard.

The timing of lights is also discussed. Most interestingly, it turns out that in L.A. during Oscars night a whole army of walkie talkie folks radio in to the central traffic light controller who can jockey longer green lights for areas with limo congestion. Hence everyone gets to the show in a reasonable man-controlled driving fashion.

March 30, 2010 at 12:12 AM 
Blogger Chase said...

I can vouch for this book, despite having not read it, based on various dollops of information Tony tells me while riding around.

Nice write-up.

March 30, 2010 at 12:48 AM 
Anonymous Econ said...

I put this book on my list a few weeks ago. I read about the Drachten experiment and Monderman online a couple of years ago. Last year, the Reason Foundation started sending me transportation policy updates ( for an unknown reason, but I find them fascinating. Btw, the top Google result for "Late Merge" is a PDF on the VA DOT site.

March 30, 2010 at 9:50 AM 

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