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Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says about Us)

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  • Posted March 4, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What This Says A

    “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What This Says About Us)” by Tom Vanderbilt is ostensibly a book about traffic, but it is really a (very fascinating) book about why people act the way they do. Traffic is merely used as a behavioral prism. Many overarching themes come to the forefront, themes such as humans are social animals and what is more dangerous may actually be safer and that safety measures make something more dangerous.

    Humans as social animals: cars and many traffic setups don’t foster socialization. That’s why many people’s personalities change when they’re behind the wheel. The roads are flat, uniform, charmless, choked with signs, impersonal. People are not seeing these other drivers again, so, sure, cut in front, give the finger, yell curses. Knock yourself out. And how dare that pedestrian or cyclist try to mess with the system? I’m trying to get somewhere, and these people are streaming across the crosswalk! Oh, the humanity.

    Which do you think is more dangerous: a wide, straight road where all buildings and sidewalks are set way back from the road OR a narrower, jostling street where children and pets play near the road’s edge? How about an intersection versus a roundabout? The answer to both questions is the second choice. Why? Humans are AWARE of the risk and so act more safely. They must socialize with other drivers/pedestrians/cyclists to maneuver the road or roundabout.

    Basically, humans have a risk threshold. Safety measures sometimes backfire because they then lead drivers to feel safer and therefore, drivers act less responsibly (examples: talk on cellphone, drive faster). Also, signage often isn’t necessary. People in fancy department stores don’t need signs telling them not to spit, so let’s give ourselves a little credit and follow the example of these localities that cut down on signs and therefore, on traffic wrecks and fatalities.

    The book offers a neat parallel of the risk concept to climbers of Alaska’s Mount McKinley. There were no fatalities in the first ten years of the 20th century among the mountain’s 47 climbers. What happened after climbing went high tech and climbers knew they could be rescued if they got into a pickle? Yep. Dozens of deaths each decade.

    A false sense of security is dangerous. Our brains need to work. They need to be engaged. Otherwise we’re just gonna speed up, put makeup on, pop large bubblegum bubbles, babble on our cellphones and fumble for a magazine. BAD IDEA.

    This is a book all drivers should read as a condition of getting their licenses. (Whether/how to evaluate if people actually read the book is a different matter, but some people reading the book is better than none.)

    Other interesting aspects of this book discuss late merging (good), driving and culture/country and fatalities/accidents as they relate to a country’s GDP and/or corruption index. (The more corrupt a country, the more likely it is to have bad accident and fatality numbers.)

    The book’s writing style is engaging. The concepts are easy to grasp and eye opening.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 22, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Social Engineering Class in Layman's Terms

    I never thought I woulds ever enjoy a book of traffic, that puckey most Southern California residents have to deal with on a regular basis. Nearly everything in the San Fernando Valley revolves around traffic: How long will it take to get there? Are there alternative routes in case of traffic? How much earlier should we leave in case there is traffic? Not only is this book a fascinating insight, it is also written so that you do not need a degree in Social Engineering in order to understand it. If you have ever wondered just WHY people will suddenly screech to a stop to look at some sparkly litter on the side of the road, this book has your answer.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2009

    Very relevant and current. Also written very accessibly.

    I've really enjoyed this book. It has been quite interesting and made me much more aware of what is going on while driving as well as in day-to-day life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2008

    I am a parking barn owl

    Interesting!! I have asked the question 'Who ARE all these people?' and the sad-but-true answer is...me! The psychology of human nature and the supreme effort it takes to move about efficiently in the modern world are examined here. Enjoyed this one!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2008

    Very interesting!

    I commute every day and have spent hours in my car cursing the fickle nature of traffic. I bought this book hoping to find out why it happens and what I can do to avoid it. Traffic is packed with information. While it didn't give me any pointers on how not to get stuck (outside of not drive), I did learn more about the process and my fellow drivers.

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