Jamming About Traffic

I consider reading important—enough so that I’ve remained committed to reading three or four books a month for the past decade or so. It occurred to me recently that being smart and well-informed doesn’t really matter. That’s probably one reason why my reading has fallen off the cliff in August.

Discussions with other readers about books we like and how it sucks when a great book is nearing an end is also part of that reading drop-off—I just haven’t been able to find anything that resonates with how I’m feeling this summer. That was until I stumbled upon a book about traffic.

Since I wrote “traffic” with a “small t,” you’re sharp to recognize that the traffic I’m talking about isn’t the Traffic of “John Barleycorn Must Die,” or “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” although it’s mighty tempting to keep the music blogging going with ruminations about “Little” Stevie Winwood and a post about WBLM that takes me back to the halcyon days at Lisbon High—that’s for another time and another post.

The traffic I’m anxious to riff on today is the story of traffic courtesy of a writer that I sadly just found out about, Tom Vanderbilt, and his wonderful book, Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). Vanderbilt’s type of traffic is the kind we’re all intimately familiar with, whether we like it or not. Because save for a few of us, our lives intertwine with cars, Happy Motoring, and the carpet-like mass of vehicles crisscrossing America at any given time.

The joys of sitting in traffic on American roadways.

The joys of sitting in traffic on American roadways.

What I’ve been enjoying about Vanderbilt’s expose on traffic (published in 2008) is the way he skillfully tackles his topic in a way unlike anyone I’ve read before writing about people and our driving habits. For instance, his prologue and its title, “Why I Became a Late Merger (and Why You Should Too)” sets the tone for understanding all those other maddening drivers—the ones who aren’t as skilled behind the wheel as we are (wink, wink).

Given that it’s road construction season in Maine, just like every past summer in memory, ending up on a high volume, high speed road where three (or two) lanes suddenly narrow into two (or in Maine, often one) is a common occurrence. And in Vacationland, doesn’t it always seem that as you merge to the right once you see the warning sign blinking ahead, a flurry of cars blow by you on the left, cutting in at the last possible second? And worse, those drivers inevitably have Massachusetts, or New Hampshire license plates on their cars or trucks, don’t they? Damn summer tourists!

Well, Vanderbilt sheds new light on that phenomenon, and why the other lane (the one you’re not in) always seems to be moving faster.

As his first few sentences read,

Why does the other lane always seem to be moving faster?

It is a question you have no doubt asked yourself while crawling down some choked highway, watching with mounting frustration as the adjacent cars glide ahead. You drum the wheel with your fingers. You change the radio station. You fixate on one car as a benchmark of your own lack of progress. You try to figure out what that weird button next to the rear-window actually does.

You’ll come to realize that “traffic problems” didn’t commence with the internal combustion engine. No, they date back to when “humans began to propel themselves artificially.” And they’ve been with us ever since.

Vanderbilt addresses hackneyed solutions to our crowded roadways—like the common method of alleviating overcrowding—building more roads. That’s not a solution at all, which is something I knew about traffic from reading others writing about vehicles and our ever-widening ribbons of highways.

As he argues, highways that in most cases function just fine, become congested not because of excess vehicles, but because of weather, or construction, but most often, what highway engineers call “nonrecurring congestion,” most often caused by crashes. So, Vanderbilt posits that rather than building more lanes and roadways, Americans would be better served by getting into fewer crashes—which he takes on in Chapter 3, “How Our Eyes and Minds Betray Us on the Road,” and why humans really weren’t cut out to be driving 55, or 60, and certainly not 75 or 80 (or even faster) on the interstate.

An aspect of driving I’ve remained fascinated about is how casual Americans are about the number of vehicle-related fatalities that occur every year on our roadways. Currently, the number stands at over 30,000 traffic deaths a year. When you compare that to other incidents that get the lion’s share of attention, this is a whopping number, but Americans just shrug their shoulders and assume that they’re immune to vehicular carnage.

Interestingly, highway deaths dropped for about 20 years from the numbers during the late 1960s when 50,000+ people were killed each year in traffic accidents. The number has been creeping back up again, however.

The latest figures just released indicated that 35,092 people were killed on public roads in 2015. That’s an average of 672 each and every week—more than the number that would be killed if a jumbo jet crashed weekly in America. Think if that happened, what the outrage would be?

These numbers represent a 7.2 percent increase from 2014, which is the fastest one-year rise in deaths in half a century. A simple explanation is that a “bustling economy and cheap fuel prices” are two factors behind the spike in deaths. Certainly, technology—and our attention to our phones, not the road in front of us—is another factor driving the increase.

Of course, depending on your perspective, the risk in driving isn’t that great when looked at one way, and significant when framed in another context—that’s what Vanderbilt does well throughout his book—offer a lens through which to view human behavior behind the wheel.

What I’ve picked up since reading Vanderbilt’s treatment on traffic is that driving is something that too often, becomes tolerable at best. Because it’s a human activity and humans are flawed, driving (and traffic) is contingent on the actions of people. And as much as I complain about “all the other idiots on the road,” I’m equally capable of being one of them, too.

Of course, all our traffic problems (and highway deaths) will one day disappear—just as soon as we turn our driving over to Google and Uber, and the fleet of autonomous Fords that you’ll simply summon from your smartphone.

Yes, I totally believe that!

4 thoughts on “Jamming About Traffic

  1. For the first time in many years I am reading again….2-3 books per week. Mostly historical novels set in the turn of the century and thru WWII. I just read for enjoyment though I also learn things that I did not know which I really enjoy.

    As far as driving the only time I have really enjoyed it is when I first got my driver’s license and became “free.” And of course, it is helpful when I have to do the mundane drives to the grocery store etc.

    Good blog.

  2. A bustling economy and cheap fuel prices? Who is he kidding? Part of the reason fuel prices are so low is that the economy is in a long, slow depression and so Americans are driving millions less miles per year than they did in, say, 2008.

    Which should be even more alarming because it’s not just fatalities that are rising, but fatalities per miles driven. This points to things like distracted driving, and maybe also vehicular suicide.

    Vanderbilt should spend a few years driving in places where there are no traffic laws, but just rules. Rules like, don’t stop at that stop sign or you’ll be rear-ended because no other drivers stop there. Rules like, two lanes plus two breakdown lanes equals five lanes. Rules like, whoever looks at the other driver first loses. Rules like, the moment I can finagle my bumper in front of yours, regardless of the angle, I have the right of way, regardless of road markings or who was there first. 99% of America’s road problems are self-created by markings, signs, lights and drivers incapable of thinking for themselves.

  3. @LP Actually, Vanderbilt didn’t make the assertion of deaths ticking up due to “a bustling economic and cheap fuel prices.” That was from the linked blog post from Car and Driver that I thought clearly tied into Vanderbilt’s book.

    Obviously, I couldn’t cover the entire book in a 1,000-word blog post. Vanderbilt does touch on driving in “places with no traffic laws,” and goes into considerable detail about driving practices in places other than the U.S. He even spends time on a subject that I know is near and dear to your experiences living abroad—the roundabout.

    I was quite impressed with the book.

    @Mark It was Gladwell’s podcast that made me aware of Vanderbilt’s book, as he always lists books to read that dovetail with each episode. This was a worthwhile and enlightening read.

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