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Maclean’s Interview: Tom Vanderbilt

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.

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.

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 play — don’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.

Q: Why do some experts argue that road signs — like deer crossing or children at play — don’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.

Q: Isn’t the fact that highway fatality rates have dropped in the last 50 years — 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 ofsomeone 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.

Q: Isn’t the fact that highway fatality rates have dropped in the last 50 years — 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 ofsomeone 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.


 
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