BOOK REVIEW: ‘Traffic’ Tells You More Than You Thought Existed About a Subject Most of Us Take for Granted

Note: I’m reprinting this book review from Aug. 5, 2008 because Tom Vanderbilt has an excellent story in the current issue of Slate which is worth reading. (Here’s a link: soon as we get out of our cars, we’re walkers!

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
When the road narrows because of construction, are you an early merger or a late one? Have you ever wondered ‘where did all these people come from’ when you’re out driving in the middle of a work day’? Is a wide-open urban road safer or more hazardous that a stretch with parked cars and many stores and businesses? Why do New York City residents jaywalk, while those in Copenhagen wait patiently for the walk signal? Is a roundabout safer or more dangerous than a signal-controlled intersection?

If you’ve wondered about these and dozens of other driving related questions, you’ll probably find the answers in Tom Vanderbilt’s fascinating, fact-packed “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)” (Knopf, 416 pages, $24.95.)

I tend to be an early merger and wonder about those who squeeze into my territory when I’ve done (in my opinion) the right thing. Vanderbilt suggests that late merging is a more efficient use of the traffic lanes available and tells us that he became a late merger after learning that traffic would move more efficiently if everybody became a late merger. Being a sensible type, I don’t make an issue of people trying to get into my lane. Road rage is something I don’t understand and don’t want to provoke.

I watched the movie “Office Space” the other night and saw an example — in the opening scenes — of a common predicament: the other lane is moving faster than yours — until you get into it. Then it slows to a crawl — and the lane you just abandoned moves along smartly.

All those people driving in the middle of a work day are taking their kids to ballet lessons, shopping or running errands…or playing hooky from work. Who knows?

For the urban road, Vanderbilt takes us to E. Colonial Drive in Orlando, FL, which the author wrongly calls U.S. 50 (it’s actually Florida 50; U.S. 50 runs across West Virginia, among other states, and is the road between Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD). The urban stretch of E. Colonial Drive in north Orlando is thick with strip malls, concrete utility poles, parked cars and other features of a heavily traveled street. As it reaches the suburbs, the lanes become wider and the buildings are pushed back from the pavement. Which part of Colonial Drive is the most dangerous? Read the book to find out and you might be surprised at the answer, backed up by statistics.

Vanderbilt has researched his subject to the point where it almost — but not quite — becomes annoying. This aspect of “Traffic” appeals to my Inner Nerd. I suspect Vanderbilt, who informs us he drives a 2001 Volvo V40, is somewhat nerdish, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Volvos (and I’ve owned two, as well as two Saabs) are a mark of nerds the world over.

Roundabouts are something I have personal experience with, having lived for several months in Belize and driving extensively in Mexico. Belize, a former British colony bordering Mexico and Guatemala, has both conventional intersections and roundabouts, and I quickly learned to prefer the roundabouts. Vanderbilt tells us that roundabouts, which force a driver to slow down and think about where he or she is going, are actually safer than conventional intersections.

Both Belize and Mexico also feature something Vanderbilt discusses, speed bumps, called topes in Mexico and bumps or pedestrian ramps in officially English-speaking Belize. Topes force drivers to slow down going through a populated zone. Sometimes there are signs for the bumps or topes, but often the signs are missing, giving you a bumpy surprise.

Jaywalking is illegal in New York and Copenhagen, but cultural mores make Danes — and other Scandinavians — loathe to cross in the middle of a street or cross against the light. New Yorkers, a much more culturally diverse lot, have no such compunctions and Vanderbilt tells us that more people are killed legally in crosswalks than jaywalking.

Another surprising fact from “Traffic”: New cars crash at a higher rate than older ones. You would think that owners of new cars would be more careful driving their prized possessions, but new cars have features that older cars lack, like multiple airbags, stability control and ABS, that give their owners a false sense of security. They take more risks and have more crashes.

Vanderbilt travels the globe to experience traffic in places as diverse as Delhi, India, Rome, Italy and London. If you’re thinking about driving in Delhi, a local traffic expert advises you to forget about it — you may be a great driver in the States, but you’re not ready for prime time in Delhi. A motor scooter rider in Rome  — a rider who also lives in Boston —  says riding a Vespa or Lambretta in the Eternal City is preferable to negotiating the streets of Boston and Cambridge — if only because Italian drivers are used to sharing the road with scooters.

Traveling to Belgium, which has roughly the same road conditions and laws — not to mention a similar per capita GDP income, a leading indicator of traffic safety — as its neighbor the Netherlands, Vanderbilt explores why Belgium has a significantly higher accident rate than its neighbor to the north. The answer to this question also applies to the issue of the dangers of driving in rural areas.

Speaking of two-wheeled vehicles, you might want to ponder the fate of the motorcyclist killed in 2003 by South Dakota Congressman Bill Janklow, “a notorious speeder who racked up more than a dozen tickets in the span of four years.” Vanderbilt takes issue with the use of the word “accident” to describe such events: “Accident is a good word for describing such events as an otherwise vigilant driver being unable to avoid a tree that suddenly fell across the road.”

Vanderbilt thinks “accident” is a bad word to describe Janklow running a stop sign and killing a motorcyclist or St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock, with a blood-alcohol level nearly twice the legal limit, slamming his rented SUV into a tow truck stopped at the scene of a previous crash in 2007. Hancock died in the crash, but was it an accident or something that was bound to happen, given his impaired condition?

If you think you know a lot about driving and traffic, read Vanderbilt’s book and discover you don’t know much at all! I’ve been a licensed driver since January 1955 in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, California, West Virginia and Texas and I learned a lot from reading “Traffic.”


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