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Jonathan Yardley on 'Traffic'
Stepping on the gas is just the beginning of getting from here to there.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, August 10, 2008

TRAFFIC

Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us)

By Tom Vanderbilt

Knopf. 402 pp. $24.95

Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic -- engagingly written, meticulously researched, endlessly interesting and informative -- is one of those rare books that comes out of the depths of nowhere. Its subjects are the road and the people who drive it, which is to say Traffic gets about as close to the heart of modern existence as any book could get, yet what's truly astonishing is that no one else has done it, at least not on the scale that Vanderbilt has achieved. We've had road novels (On the Road) and road movies ("Two for the Road") and road songs ("On the Road Again"), but nonfiction studies of "why we drive the way we do and what it says about us" -- to borrow Vanderbilt's subtitle -- have been almost entirely limited to dry, impenetrable engineering and psychological treatises. Yet think about it, which Vanderbilt obviously has done at great length and to immensely rewarding effect. "Many of us," he writes at the outset, "myself included, seem to take driving a car fairly lightly, perhaps holding on to some simple myths of independence and power, but it is actually an incredibly complex and demanding task." Then, a bit farther down the road, at the beginning of a chapter entitled "Why You're Not as Good a Driver as You Think You Are," he continues:

"For those of us who are not brain surgeons, driving is probably the most complex everyday thing we do. It is a skill that consists of at least fifteen hundred 'subskills.' At any moment, we are navigating through terrain, scanning our environment for hazards and information, maintaining our position on the road, judging speed, making decisions (about twenty per mile, one study found), evaluating risk, adjusting instruments, anticipating the future actions of others -- even as we may be sipping a latte, thinking about last night's episode of American Idol, quieting a toddler, or checking voice mail. A survey of one stretch of road in Maryland found that a piece of information was presented every two feet, which at 30 miles per hour, the study reasoned, meant the driver was exposed to 1,320 'items of information,' or roughly 440 words, per minute. This is akin to reading three paragraphs like this one while also looking at lots of pretty pictures, not to mention doing all the other things mentioned above -- and then repeating the cycle, every minute you drive."

Get only a few pages into Traffic and you'll begin to understand something that probably has never crossed your mind, unless you're a traffic engineer, a behavioral psychologist or a law-enforcement officer: The road is an incredibly complicated place, and driving -- which, after the initial rush of passing the driver's test, most of us take for granted for the rest of our lives -- is fraught with danger and uncertainty at every turn of the wheels. Vanderbilt, a freelance writer who specializes in complex and sometimes arcane subjects, posits "a simple mantra you can carry about with you in traffic": "When a situation feels dangerous to you, it's probably more safe than you know; when a situation feels safe, that is precisely when you should feel on guard. Most crashes, after all, happen on dry roads, on clear, sunny days, to sober drivers."

By way of illustrating the point, Vanderbilt describes "a driving trip in rural Spain" during which a promising shortcut turned out to be "a climbing, twisting, broken-asphalt nightmare of blind hairpin turns" with "few guardrails, just vertigo-inducing drops into distant gulleys." Because "there was little to keep me from tumbling off the edge of the road," Vanderbilt "drove as if my life depended on it," which of course it did. Another time in Spain, he drove "a smooth, flat road with gentle curves and plenty of visibility," and "I just about fell asleep and ran off the road."

By any standard measurement, the first road was "incredibly dangerous" and the second "of course the more objectively safe," yet Vanderbilt argues -- and many traffic specialists agree -- that the first road made him a better driver because it put him on high alert while the second nearly lulled him to sleep. He writes: "The things that work best in the traffic world of the highway -- consistency, uniformity, wide lanes, knowing what to expect ahead of time, the reduction of conflicts, the restriction of access, and the removal of obstacles -- have little or no place in the social world."

That's just one of the many useful tidbits that await you in Traffic. For instance: "Anonymity in traffic acts as a powerful drug, with several curious side effects. On the one hand, because we feel that no one is watching, or that no one we know will see us, the inside of the car itself becomes a useful place for self-expression. . . . The flip side of anonymity . . . is that it encourages aggression." The risks of anonymity are among the almost literally uncountable distractions of the road: "As the inner life of the driver begins to come into focus, it is becoming clear not only that distraction is the single biggest problem on the road but that we have little concept of just how distracted we are." People "drive as if the world is a television show viewed on TiVo that can be paused in real time -- one can duck out for a moment, grab a beer from the fridge, and come back to right where they left off without missing a beat."

Keeping traffic moving safely and freely is the responsibility of traffic engineers, yet most of us are clueless about their daily impact on our lives. They are involved in everything from synchronizing (or not synchronizing) stoplights to building gentle curves into straight interstates in order to reduce boredom and sleepiness. But they aren't perfect: "As a profession, traffic engineering has historically tended to treat pedestrians like little bits of irritating sand gumming up the works of their smoothly humming traffic machines. With a touch of condescending pity, pedestrians are referred to as 'vulnerable road users.' . . . As a testament to the inherent bias of the profession, no engineer has ever written a paper about how 'vehicular interference' disrupts the saturation flow rates of people trying to cross the street."

One of Vanderbilt's best chapters is "How Traffic Explains the World: On Driving with a Local Accent," in which he shows how everything from road signs to motorists' behavior varies from city to city, country to country. It's not all that hard for the traveler to adapt to the basics, as I discovered a couple of years ago while driving on the "wrong" side of the road in Scotland, but the subtleties are something else: "Traffic is a sort of secret window onto the inner heart of a place, a form of cultural expression as vital as language, dress, or music. It's the reason a horn in Rome does not mean the same thing as a horn in Stockholm, why flashing your headlights at another driver is understood one way on the German autobahn and quite another way on the 405 in Los Angeles, why people jaywalk constantly in New York and hardly at all in Copenhagen. These are the impressions that stick with us. 'Greek drivers are crazy,' the visitor to Athens will observe, safely back in Kabul."

As for accidents, Vanderbilt declines to call them that as they are almost always the result of behavior that is not accidental. He calls them crashes, and reports that "more people were killed in the United States on Saturday and Sunday from midnight to three a.m. than all those who were killed from midnight to three a.m. the rest of the week." Stay home on the Fourth of July, "statistically, the most dangerous day to be on the road," and Super Bowl Sunday: "Nearly twenty times more beer is drunk in total on Super Bowl Sunday than on an average day." The drivers most likely to be involved in crashes on those days are males, frequently young ones, especially those driving pickup trucks, "the most dangerous vehicle on the road." Indeed, pickups are more dangerous than big trucks, because "car drivers have less to fear from [big] trucks than from what they themselves do around [big] trucks," which tends to be to drive dangerously. Pickups "are high, heavy, and have very stiff front ends -- meaning other vehicles have to absorb more energy in a crash."

All the above is just a sample of what's to be learned from Traffic, which touches just about every imaginable base, always authoritatively. As a Washingtonian who is both a motorist and (more often) a pedestrian, I wish he'd looked into the tendency of suburbanites to bring bad suburban driving habits into more demanding urban streets -- yes, Maryland and Virginia license plates, I'm talking about you -- but that can be inferred from other discussions in the book. Read it and you're likely to come away a better driver, more cautious and more alert. Certainly I like to think it's made me a better driver, but then as Vanderbilt says, we all think we're better drivers than we really are. ยท

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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