6 Jan 2010, 9:59pm
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Book review: Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt

Model T on unpaved roadI’ve just finished reading “TRAFFIC,” by Tom Vanderbilt, published by Vintage Books in 2009.  It is subtitled, “Why we drive the way we do and what it says about us.”  I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in trying to understand the mundane yet highly complex activity we call driving.

 “Traffic” is a dense book.  Fully one fifth of the book is notes and the index.  I consider myself a pretty smart guy but I was reading right at the top of my grade level.  It was worth the effort.  It is amazing how much serious academic study has gone into studying how roads, vehicles and driver behaviors interact with each other.  By the time you finish the book you will agree with Mr. Vanderbilt that traffic is not rocket science.  It’s more complicated than that.

 This book manages to avoid the trap that so many similar efforts fall into.  The things you think you understand, you don’t and the things you think you don’t understand you do.  In stead, layer by layer, the author reveals that what seems to be simple is actually extraordinarily complex.  Vast amounts of engineering effort have gone into making safe roads and vehicles yet the death and damage tolls continue at levels that would be scandalous if they were not so commonplace.

 The nut behind the wheel is the most complex part of the puzzle.  As roads and cars get safer, driving behavior becomes ever more dangerous.  So many factors contribute to the annual carnage on our roads.  The safest, most alert, most attentive driver can easily be distracted yet anything more than two seconds of failing to pay attention can have the most disastrous of consequences.  Factor in exhaustion, alcohol, cell phones, age, sex, time of day, weather conditions, road works and types of vehicle and you begin to wonder why there aren’t more crashes than there already are.

 Here is a random selection from some of the notes I made:

 90% of all crashes are caused by either over confidence or lack of attention.  50% of all crashes happen at intersections.  Crashes involving single vehicles running off the road cause the most fatalities.  Most fatal crashes happen between midnight and 3:00 AM on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  Fatigue contributes to 12% of all crashes.  The morning crush hour is twice as safe as in the evening.  The second highest cause of crashes is rubber-necking a previous crash.  Although men have fewer crashes women do they die at twice the rate.  Men have twice as many alcohol related crashes and are less likely to wear seat belts.  Men drive motorcycles far more than women do and are less likely to wear a helmet when they do.  The risk of death at 50 MPH is fifteen times higher than at 25 MPH.

Mr. Vanderbilt maintains a companion blog to the book.  You can reach it by clicking:   http://www.howwedrive.com/


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