September 23, 2008

BOOKS: Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt (2008)

Fascinating look at the how and why of traffic and driving.

Vanderbilt studies such questions as why traffic jams form (and why they seem to suddenly disappear for no reason), how people behave in parking lots, and the usefulness of traffic signs.

Many of his conclusions are counterintuitive. Many of the things that we think contribute to safety on the road, for instance -- increased signage, wider lanes -- may actually make things more dangerous, because the safer drivers feel on the road, the more complacent they become, leading them to pay less attention and get involved in more accidents. By contrast, when one village tried the radical experiment of eliminating traffic signs entirely, accidents and death rates dropped dramatically; with no formal guidance, drivers were forced to pay attention and to cooperate with one another.

I was also surprised to learn that the most dangerous roads in the US aren't the freeways, but two-lane rural roads. They tend to be driven by the same people every day, and familiarity breeds complacency; they are generally more poorly lighted; and when accidents do occur, medical help is likely to be farther away.

There's a terrific chapter on the little-known group of city employees who are responsible for regulating traffic flow in Los Angeles; they make on-the-spot decisions about the timing of traffic lights in an attempt to keep traffic moving smoothly.

This is a marvelously entertaining book, and it's bound to change the way you think about your daily commute. (Oh, and don't be too intimidated by the size of the book; yes, it's just over 400 pages, but more than 100 of that is endnotes and index.)

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