Driving well has nothing to do with how well we late-apex Oaktree Corner at VIR, how cleanly we rev-match a heel-and-toe downshift or how much we know about F-bodies and Kappa platforms. It’s all about simple movement and complex congestion, intuition versus intelligence, myth versus reality. Why We Drive the Way We Do by Tom Vanderbilt is a shot across the bow of the typically clueless, not very competent, generally thoughtless, surprisingly unsafe, unjustifiably over-confident average driver. In other words, you and me.
Take the common task of merging from three lanes into two. Polite drivers will segue into the next lane as soon as they can. Jerks will stay in the closing lane all the way to the end, then force their way in. As Vanderbilt correctly argues, these “jerks” actually help traffic move faster. If a larger number of motorists simply followed their lead, stayed in the “open” lane to the bitter end and THEN alternate-merged into the funnel, everyone would get where they’re going more quickly.
Or say you’re in a line of fast-moving cars following somebody in your lane who slows quickly— maybe he’s been cut off, or is about to miss an exit. You’re third in line and so skillful a wheelman in your Brembo’ed BMW that you can follow the car ahead pretty closely and still brake safely. Unfortunately, the six cars behind you each progressively uses up the rapidly closing gaps that you have single-handedly created, and the tenth car in line has a huge and unavoidable rear-ender that you caused.
Traffic driving is filled with visual illusions and sensory tricks. SUV and pickup truck drivers tend to go faster without knowing it, because they’re just that much farther above the road. They’re just like early 747 pilots who tended to taxi at speeds that could damage the landing gear, because they’d never sat that high above a taxiway.
Traffic has many facets. We communicate in traffic with bumper stickers announcing that we’re religious, liberal, ex-Marines, whale-savers, parents of teachers’ pets. Yet the little billboards are counter-communicative. Beep to try and say Semper Fi and you’ll get the finger. (I was leaving the gym in our Boxster awhile ago and found myself right behind a woman in a near-identical Boxster, waiting to enter the highway. I gave her a “Hi, Porschie fan” toot and got, yes, the deadly digit.)
Parking is an inevitable part of driving. Why do many people park substantially farther from the big-box store if they have a sightline to the front entrance, even if there are closer spaces off to either side? Some drivers are active parking searchers, endlessly cruising to look for a spot, like an orbiting hawk. Few can bear to be owls, perching in wait for a shopper to come out of the mall to follow them and take their spot. In one survey of a 15-block area near UCLA, a survey discovered that people looking for parking drove 3,600 miles a day.
Driving involves not just seeing but knowing what to do with the information you thus collect. A driver in Maine will brake immediately for a moose but less quickly for a zebra, since he has to process an unfamiliar situation. When the light turns yellow, you need to quickly make the correct decision: push through and run the slight risk of getting heavily T-boned by a green-light jumper, or stop quickly and run the more substantial risk of getting into a minor rear-ender.
Traffic is stuffed with seemingly random but always instructive factoids…
We constantly see other drivers making mistakes but are unable to see ourselves doing so.
We often drive at a distance behind the vehicle ahead that far exceeds our ability to avoid a crash, because we have blind faith that the driver in front of us will never, ever need to stop quickly.
Drivers prefer waiting in a single long line than in multiple shorter lanes, because they hate the stress of worrying that the other guy has chosen a faster lane.
Rubberneckers create the perfect self-generating traffic jam, and people slowing to look at an accident get into accidents themselves.
If you drive an average of 15,500 miles a year, there is one chance in 100 that you will die in a fatal car crash over a 50-year lifetime of driving.
The most dangerous vehicles on the road are… pickup trucks. More people die in pick-’em-ups per 100m miles driven than in any other vehicle.
Stirling Moss once said “There are two things no man will admit he cannot do well: drive and make love.” But then smarter Albert Einstein said, “Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” Go figure.