Book Review: Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us)

Stephan Wilkinson
by Stephan Wilkinson
book review traffic why we drive the way we do and what it says about us

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.

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  • JEC JEC on Sep 22, 2008

    I grew up in a small town in the Maritimes. I learned defensive driving and all that jazz. Traffic jams in my hometown were when there was no empty space between two sets of lights. Then I moved to Montreal. All my prior training as a good driver went out the window, and I'm all the better for it. People complain about MTL drivers all the time, but if you are capable of paying attention to your surroundings you really become a much better driver. You have to be aggressive, quick acting and merciless otherwise you'll be (at best) the asshole who holds up downtown traffic, or (at worst) the moron in a now-wrecked car blocking the freeway. This requires concentration, something entirely lacking among most drivers, especially outside big cities. Throw some bumpkin onto the Decarie expressway at peak flow with semis grazing their doors at 130 km/h and see how they fare (actually I see it daily, they are the nitwits who plug up the flow of traffic all the time). I even get pissed off when I drive through Toronto because the people are either negligent or overly conscious of other drivers (stopping to let people pull out of t-junctions in busy downtown traffic - courtesy has a place, but not when it involves holding up commuter traffic in a multi-million pop city) Step one to improving traffic behaviour - rewrite "defensive driving" techniques or toss them out altogether. Step two, ban automatics so people actually pay attention to the task of driving their vehicle. Step three, have final driver training on the streets and freeways of Montreal during peak traffic and rush hour. When I come to power as a benevolent dictator, these will be the first orders to the transport department, right after abolishing speed limits outside of residential areas.

  • Blkstne Blkstne on Sep 25, 2008

    I hate when drivers seem to be afraid to accelerate into traffic (be it merge lane, on-ramps etc). Than once in traffic they creep along causing all traffic behind them to slow up. One should always drive at or faster than the surrounding traffic speed that one is merging into. There is nothing worse than a person driving from a on-ramp or a another lane and I have to hit my brakes because they are driving 20 mph slower than the other fifty cars around them. I myself love speeding up on-ramps and merging into traffic already doing 60-70 mph. I have driven in about 6 different countries and all over the United States. The best drivers adapt to the surrounding traffic they are driving in at that moment.

  • CoastieLenn They absolutely should.
  • Arthur Dailey Thanks for the clarification.@JeffS has nicely summarized most of my original comment.I greatly dislike the 'touring' light treatment. It seems like we all do. This generation of Mark is too short to pull off the continental hump and fake engine vents. With them the proportions look odd.As Corey so nicely put it 'disco was dead and so was its car'. Successive generations generally reject the vehicles that their parents drove (or drove them around in). And as the children of Boomers grew, the Boomers gave up their PLC's and rather than turning to station wagons to transport their growing brood turned to the newly available minivan.And the generation behind them, rather than aspiring to a PLC, instead leased 'German driving machines'.
  • SCE to AUX "Toyota has dropped a pic of the next Tacoma on Instagram."This is why the splashy auto show reveals are dead.
  • Sckid213 I feel like the Camry in Japan is what oddballs like the Kia K9 and Hyundai Eqqus felt here. Obviously those were higher-end vehicles than Camry, but they felt like they were in the wrong dimension here in the U.S.
  • FreedMike The Falcon was fast and temperamental. Is Ford sure this is what it wants to advertise?