Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Traffic: why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)

by Tom Vanderbilt

The whole time I was reading this book, I was imagining an author who looks like Ralph Nader: older, suited, unattractive but noticeably intelligent. Just before turning it in, I flipped to the back cover flap, and — hello! Pretty darn foxy.

Anyway, it's a good book. Not quite gripping, but interesting and easy to read. The author occasionally flirts with getting bogged down in numbers, but pulls back at the last instant. Like foreplay, or the opposite maybe.

The book delves into the biology and psychology of driving humans. For example, has it ever occurred to you that millions of years of evolution have given us brains and eyes designed for movement and social interaction over short distances and very low speeds? In less than a hundred years, we've invented technology that puts us in situations way beyond anything for which our biology has prepared us. Plus there's the psychology that makes us tend to obey some laws and not others, which varies by culture and economics.

It also gives a good picture of the physics of traffic and congestion, and why human attempts to explain or control or avoid same are sometimes dead wrong, and why some solutions work while others don't. Not to mention the risk management side of things, in which we are often mistaken in our assessments of danger, frequently afraid of the wrong things, and pretty much playing roulette most of the time anyway.

I'd like to say I've learned something or changed my driving behavior as a result of reading this book, but that would be an overstatement. I certainly have an expanded awareness of the pertinent issues, but we're all at the mercy of road design and, worst of all, other drivers. Just because I now know whether it's theoretically better to merge early or late when one of the lanes is ending (its depends on the level of congestion, FYI), doesn't necessarily mean I'll make the right choice, because in fact (as opposed to theory) what's best for the individual isn't always what's best for the aggregate, and either way the correctness of my choice is modified and mitigated by the simultaneous choices of everyone else on the road.

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