If the Hwy. 40 project and back-to-school road congestion have you frustrated, you may want to pull into a book dealer on your next commute. The entertaining new book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), by Tom Vanderbilt may offer some catharsis, or at least some interesting factoids to think about as you fume about drivers slowing down to look at the car on the side of the road.
Vanderbilt mines the surprisingly hefty collection of research on all things driving (the massive notes section would barely fit inside a glove box) and puts together an engaging sociological study on behavior and communication as reflected by the world of windshields and side-view mirrors. He sees the car almost as an extension of the body, its movement on the road affected by constantly varying psychological states and attention levels, and the road as a branch of society where people coexist under a system of laws and unwritten social codes that differ from place to place as much as the people who inhabit the vehicles.
Yet despite the abundance of information and research citations, the book feels unexpectedly populist. You will find yourself nodding in recognition as Vanderbilt considers many of the eternal questions that have perplexed drivers probably since the invention of the wheel, like why your lane seems to move the slowest no matter how many times you switch. The book investigates many common roadway occurrences that you may never have thought much about but will be able to picture as you read.
Vanderbilt looks most intensely at factors that influence driver safety, such as the large amount of information the brain processes when driving and the regularity of attention lapses. (If you drive a familiar route and sometimes reach the destination having forgotten the entire trip, you are not alone.) He considers how cultural shifts and trends such as drive-throughs and the shopping patterns of women have reshaped traffic flow. And he explains the constant game between commuters looking to shortcut their routes or even the law and the engineers who try to manipulate traffic patterns and driving behaviors, frequently with little success.
Perhaps the greatest benefit will be stocking your brain with conversation enhancers for the next road trip or with ammunition to justify road behavior that some might consider discourteous but actually helps the flow. The next time your lane merges due to construction, just whiz by all the stopped motorists until the end of the lane. When you get dirty looks, hold up Traffic, roll down the window, and yell, “This expert says I’m doing the right thing!” Or go visit your old driver’s ed teacher and show him the research that says head checks are dangerous.
The book is full of these little revelations that undercut conventional wisdom. Would you have guessed that traffic signals and lane lines do not necessarily make driving safer?
As fascinating as much of the book is, I might suggest a more visually eye-popping format more in the fashion of an illustrated fact book or even a bathroom reader. For one thing, it would make it much easier to actually read in the car (during stoppages, of course).
Despite its often amusing tone, Traffic is an academic work, and Vanderbilt does examine relevant safety issues, pointing out that road fatalities may in a few years become the third-leading cause of death in the world. Regrettably, Vanderbilt omits anything beyond just a passing mention of the more timely major social issues shaped by traffic: pollution and fossil fuel consumption.
The one warning about reading Traffic is that it will turn you pessimistic about the likelihood of the Hwy. 40 project having any effect on congestion. If the trunk-full of information in this book is any predictor, we will actually have more cars and the same travel times. It might be time to start pushing the agenda on those futuristic hover cars.