MRM's Reviews > Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt
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's review
Aug 27, 2008

really liked it
Recommended to MRM by: BPL "What to Read"

Well-written and entertaining look at the psychology of drivers (i.e. most of us). I would have preferred more about urban streets and cyclists (as I am a bike commuter), especially since Vanderbilt lives in my own borough of Brooklyn. But of course Traffic is wide-ranging, as it should be -- always good to learn about what's happening in other countries, particularly China and India.

The most depressing chapters for me were in the first part of the book, when Vanderbilt describes the various unavoidable ways that people engage in self-defeating behavior on the road. "Vehicles are moving at velocities for which we hvae no evolutionary training -- for most of the life of the species we did not try to make interpersonal decisions at speed." (p. 37) The distraction, the cellphones, the falling asleep at the wheel...And we're not getting any better. And every close call reinforces our idea that we're a good driver because we avoided getting in an accident.

Speaking of which, I wanted to cheer Vanderbilt in the passage about the word "accident" (which he points out that the British Medical Journal stopped using seven years ago because it implies, falsely, that such an incident is both unpredictable and unpreventable). "The word accident[...:]has been sent skittering down a slippery slope, to the point where it seems to provide protective cover for the worst and most negligent driving behaviors. This in turn suggests that so much of the everyday carnage on the road is mysteriously out of our hands and can be stopped or lessened only by adding more air bags (pedestrians, unfortunately, lack this safety feature)." (p. 66)

Similarly, the most inspiring chapter for me was "When Dangerous Roads Are Safer," which discusses the ways that traditional traffic-calming measures (speed bumps, lots of signs, etc.) aren't the best ways to improve driver behavior and reduce crashes. I made a list of the people and concepts I want to research further -- Joost Vahl, Hans Monderman, the Shared Space movement...I loved how anarchism (not "anarchy" as it's misused, as a synonym for chaos) reigned in the Laweiplein crossing in Drachten, the Netherlands, after traffic engineer Hans Monderman redesigned it without signs or lights. "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[...:]felt that the system was more dangerous!" (p. 200)
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