INTERVIEW

'One study of a busy stretch of urban road found that there were 1,300 pieces of information every minute at 30 mph'

TOM VANDERBILT TALKS WITH JOHN INTINI ABOUT THE LINK BETWEEN CORRUPTION AND DRIVING, AND WHY A LITTLE ROAD RAGE MAY BE GOOD

August 25 2008
INTERVIEW

'One study of a busy stretch of urban road found that there were 1,300 pieces of information every minute at 30 mph'

TOM VANDERBILT TALKS WITH JOHN INTINI ABOUT THE LINK BETWEEN CORRUPTION AND DRIVING, AND WHY A LITTLE ROAD RAGE MAY BE GOOD

August 25 2008

'One study of a busy stretch of urban road found that there were 1,300 pieces of information every minute at 30 mph'

INTERVIEW

TOM VANDERBILT TALKS WITH JOHN INTINI ABOUT THE LINK BETWEEN CORRUPTION AND DRIVING, AND WHY A LITTLE ROAD RAGE MAY BE GOOD

Earlier this month, Tom Vanderbilt, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based author and owner of a 2001 Volvo V40, released his latest book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us).

Q How would you define a dangerous driver? A: Every new driver is a somewhat dangerous driver, no matter how cautious they are. But more fundamentally, and this sounds really basic, it’s anyone who violates traffic rules. Q: So all of us?

A: Yes, some of us are just lucky to violate rules and not be penalized for it. It’s remarkable that there aren’t more crashes.

Q: People sing, shave, even pick their noses when they’re behind the wheel. Things they’d never do at the office or in a mall. Is it because we feel anonymous in our cars? Are we too comfortable, perhaps?

A: The car is a private space operating in a public space. This is a weird thing that we really don’t experience in any other way. The one area of life that I find to be the most similar to traffic is the Internet. People conduct themselves in a very nasty way behind a veil of anonymity that is a log-in name. It’s like we put on a different skin in the car. It’s almost a second life.

Q: Why don’t passengers react in the same angry way that drivers do when something happens on the road? Do drivers take being

cut off, for instance, as a personal attack?

A: Research shows that passengers and drivers exhibit different reactions in different parts of the brain. It might be bound in the mechanical controls of the car itself. The passenger doesn’t have the same direct feedback with the car and the road. On the other hand, passengers have a slightly more objective view of the proceedings.

Q: Explain the idea that a little bit of road rage may be good for society.

A: First of all, I’m having a bit of fun. Road rage is a terribly inexact phrase. Honking is not the same as committing homicide on the freeway. It just raises the question: what’s the result of not punishing someone for doing something bad? If we all have a don’t ask, don’t tell road policy, are we biologically lessening our genetic fitness as a driving population by not punishing people for violating rules? There’s a certain school that says ignore anyone who cuts you off. But I’m left to wonder.

Q: You make an interesting comparison in your book between Belgium and the Netherlands. The two countries are very similar and yet Belgium is a much more dangerous place to drive because of, you write, higher levels of “corruptum.” How does that play a role?

A: There is less of an incentive for following the law if the law is not enforced or the people in power are not following the law. There’s a trickle-down effect, most famously in France with the pardoning of traffic tickets. It was a long-standing tradition of the incoming president of France to write off the

traffic violations. Research shows that a ticket actually reduces your crash risk in the immediate aftermath. It’s a rough form of feedback. You’re being told what you’re doing is not correct and you respond. It’s also related to the GDP. As societies become wealthier, they pay more attention to safety.

Q: Why do some experts argue that road signs—like deer crossing or children at playdon’t actually work?

A: One study of a busy stretch of urban road found that there were 1,300 pieces of information every minute at 30 mph. So there is a question if a lot of the signs just get lost in the blur. Another question is, and traffic engineers know this, the more signs you have, the less respect they garner. The third point is context. There are so many signs that are not appropriate to the moment. Studies show that if you can have a dynamic sign that changes according to the conditions, more people will respond to it. But these are more expensive. There’s an argument that removing signs might have more power in granting people to make their own decisions. Obviously this isn’t a blanket solution. We can’t just remove every traffic sign tomorrow and expect the world to be a safer place.

Q: You identify a bunch of “traffic-calming” tactics used in Europe, like putting a child’s bike on the side of the road instead of a speed bump, removing stoplights, using topless models. Do you really think these kind of things could work in a big North American city like New York or Toronto?

Ain New York, we have informal traffic calming: potholes and jaywalkers. North American suburbs are built with incredibly wide roads and a speeding problem immediately develops and, lo and behold, drivers aren’t paying attention to the signs and the community has to install speed bumps, which drivers, with good reason, hate. There’s an argument for finding ways to make people do the right thing without it being an enforced, totalitarian choice from above. There are ways of making things better without resorting to old-school engineering.

Q: You write that adding more roads—or more lanes to highways—does little to curb congestion. And yet, whenever I’m on the road, I see construction crews widening highways. Are they simply misguided?

A: We have a lot of road capacity. The RAND Corporation says that well over 90 per cent of American roads are not congested over 90 per cent of the time. The problem is everyone using the system at the same time. To use a folksy homily, you don’t build a church for Easter Sunday. You deal with that extra capacity on that one day and find other ways to manage it rather than just building a larger structure that sits empty most of the time. Another classic phenomenon has been called “predict and provide.” The planning model says “there will be X number of new users on the roads in 2020 so we need to build X lanes of road.” They’re trying to anticipate demand, but by building the very road, they’re creating demand.

The idea of building your way out of congestion is losing its political steam. The more rational approach is to charge people for what’s actually being used. That’s what’s happening in London. Roads are kind of an allyou-can-eat buffet right now. You can go on them whenever you want and generally pay the same thing. If you look at the traffic stream, there are a lot of people who don’t need to be making that trip at that time. But as long as drivers can make a trip at least marginally better in their car than on public transportation there is no incentive for someone to remove themselves from traffic. You’re not going to get on the bus if the bus is sitting in the same traffic that you could sit in in your car and get directly to where you’re going. Q: What can ants teach us about traffic?

A: They’re nature’s perfect commuters. They have an utterly co-operative system without a hierarchy, aside from the queen. No one is acting selfishly. They build their own roads every morning. And their own bridges. They instinctively even follow the same speed—a built-in traffic harmonization that seems to come from the depositing of

pheromones on the trail. There are a lot of parallels to be drawn from the study of that and how human traffic behaves. For instance, the ant lays the pheromone on the trail and the following ant responds to that. A longstanding fascination in traffic studies is something called car following. The way you react to a car in front ofyou—there’s a kind of invisible glue there—you’re trying to keep some distance but not drift too far back.

Q: Isn’t the fact that highway fatality rates have dropped in the last 50years—at the same time the number of cars has multiplied—an argument that congestion is a good thing?

A: In some ways they’ve gone down for reasons that have nothing to do with the driver. There is a benefit to passive car safety. Interestingly, fatalities per head of population in the U.S. is about the same as it was in the first half of the 20th century. So in one way it’s gone down. In another way it’s stayed the same. It’s led some to suggest that we have a built-in tolerance for what level of fatalities we’ll accept as an industrialized nation.

Q: Do drivers who think they’re always stuck in the slow lane have a point or are they just paranoid?

A: While driving, we spend an inordinate amount of time just looking forward because of the dynamics of traffic—more than 90 per cent by eye-tracking studies. We look in the following lane a lot too. So we see cars passing us. Because of the way traffic pinches and opens up again, it creates an illusion of loss. A good rule is that the more congested it is, the more traffic is in a state of equilibrium. What looks like a faster lane is probably just a result of someone having changed to your lane further ahead. It’s just a funny swapping out of advantage.

Q: You claim that in some cases slower can be faster. What do you mean?

A: In England on the M25 highway, even here in Washington, where I am right now, they’re just rolling out variable speed limits [a system of changeable speed-limit signs wired to react to road, weather and traffic conditions that has proven to cut down on crashes and time spent in stop-and-go traffic]. People have to obey the limit, of course, and things run smoother. It’s like dumping a cup of rice into a funnel compared to pouring it very slowly. It takes longer to pour it slowly, but it goes through faster. Another example is driving at a slower speed and hitting all the green lights instead of driving really fast between all the red lights. As well, highways as a whole perform the best at 60 mph, not at 75 mph.

Q: Who do you consider to be the best and worst drivers in the world?

A: A lot equates to income. According to Smeed’s Law, fatalities rise as a country

develops and then begin to drop. At first it rises because people are acquiring money and cars. We’ve seen this in China. We saw it in the former East Germany after reunification. Then people start getting better cars, investing more in safety, and getting used to people being on the road. There are countries in Africa with very few vehicles but those few vehicles are doing a lot of damage.

Q: Is there anywhere in the world you wouldn’t rent a car?

A: I would not drive in rural India. In fact, I was staying in Delhi and I was going to go to the Taj Mahal. After spending a few days talking to some Indian traffic-safety officials and looking at footage of crashes on Indian rural highways, I was so put off. It was a combination of things. I essentially ran out of time, but I could have done it. I was just a little bit distraught by what I’d seen.

Tt’s like we put on a different skin in the car. The car’s a private space operating in a public space.’

Q: Are you more frustrated with other drivers’ habits now that you know so much?

A: Let’s just say I’m probably more fascinated by what other drivers do, which is a great coping strategy.

Q: Has all the research helped make you a better driver?

A: My cornering skills aren’t that good. I don’t really like to drive that fast. So by some people’s measure I’m not a “good” driver. But I’ve definitely tried to become a more self-aware driver. I’m certainly my own backseat driver. M