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Book Review - Traffic, Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt

I have been accused of being an aggressive and unsafe driver, much to my chagrin. I know I am aggressive, but unsafe? That I take exception to. It is true however that your own perception of how you drive is much out of whack with your passenger's perspective. Traffic - Why We Drive The Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt seeks to explore this most mundane of everyday activities. Driving and Traffic are technically separate but closely related subjects and Mr. Vanderbilt provides a fascinating discussion of both.

Traffic begins with Mr. Vanderbilt's admission of being a 'late-merger', someone who waits till the last moment before exiting a closed lane and merging into a parallel one. There are some drivers who choose to merge early, as soon as they see a sign indicating their lane is closed ahead (or is exit only etc.), others wait right up to the last second and then indiginantly try to merge into the freer flowing traffic of the next lane. The first few chapters of the book focus on driving, taking into account factors like cognition, culture, human psychology (and psyche), self perception of who you are and who you want to be, reflex times and the meaning of gestures and signals. Chapter Five is provocatively titled 'Why Women Cause More Congestion Than Men (and Other Secrets of Traffic)' - but don't get offended yet, the author goes on to explain why that is so. Women continue to handle a lot of 'non-work' trips, taking kids to school and soccer practice for example. Women also tend to be engaged in what Vanderbilt calls "serve-passenger" trips, where they are taking passengers to places they don't have to be themselves and they tend to make several stops thus 'chaining' multiple trips. Women also tend to leave later for work than men and therefore drive right into already congested freeways. Hence, 'women cause more congestion than men'.

About half way through the book Vanderbilt shifts gears (I couldn't resist that pun) and focuses on traffic engineering and management. Chaper Six talks about the confounding observation that as more roads are built, traffic only seems to get worse. The author explores the idea and travels around the US talking to traffic engineers and looks into the externalities of America's obsession with driving. Chapter Seven was my favorite, presenting the most interesting ideas in the book. The author talks approvingly of the work of Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman who supposedly hated traffic signs. The author argues, by citing examples and urging the reader to analyze his own experiences, that roads deemed to be unsafe tend have a lesser proportion of fatal crashes precisely because drivers are a lot more careful when using them. A smooth flowing freeway tends to induce boredom and distraction, and distraction at 70mph can be fatal. Chapter Eight is a quick romp through two of the worlds' most congested cities Delhi and Beijing. Both culture and corruption seem to affect accident rates and fatalities on the roads of these dense and, for a western driver, terrifying cities.

Traffic could easily have been a work of pop psychology, filled with platitudinal wisdom. The appeal of the book is that it resists that temptation. This is a well researched book with a 110 pages of notes to satisfy the obsessive reader. The writing itself is engaging and enjoyable. Highly recommended.

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