Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

STEERING ZEAL

Geoff Nicholson


I know all about traffic. So do you. So does everyone. We curse it. We try to avoid it. When we’re pedestrians, we try not to be run down by it. Of course, we also cause it. And as we sit stuck in it, we sometimes develop one or two pet theories about it, generally based on nothing more than conjecture and personal prejudice. To that extent, Tom Vanderbilt is one of us. In the prologue to Traffic, he wonders whether those who merge lanes at the last possible moment are arrogant queue jumpers or simply making the best use of available space. It’s a good question, and Vanderbilt doesn’t come up with a definite answer: He isn’t a know-it-all; rather, he styles himself a “novice in a complex field.” “Like me,” he writes, “you may have wondered: What could traffic tell us, if someone would just stop to listen?”

Vanderbilt explores the idiosyncrasies of driving cultures at home and abroad. He’s a New Yorker, but he reports from Europe, China, and India, as well as various parts of the United States. He deals with safety, commuting, signage, and parking, and he writes snappy chapter titles and subtitles: “When Dangerous Roads Are Safer,” “Why Ants Don’t Get into Traffic Jams (and Humans Do),” “How’s My Driving? How the Hell Should I Know?” He also goes in search, in person and in print, of those who have the expertise he lacks. Other novices, like me, may be amazed at just how many such people there are. We find ourselves among psychologists, urban planners, and traffic engineers, and in the company of Barry Kantowitz, a “human factors expert”; Alan Pisarski, “the country’s leading authority” on “travel behavior”; and David Maister, “an expert in the psychology of queuing.” Their work, or at least Vanderbilt’s description of it, uses a vocabulary rich in terms such as “risk homeostasis,” “psychophysical numbing,” and “hedonic adaptation.” If Vanderbilt has any skepticism about this jargon, he keeps it to himself. Sometimes Traffic seems to be an academic tome masquerading as a popular read; sometimes the opposite.

Vanderbilt is also unburdened by a sense of irony, which may be part of the traffic-maven mindset. Personally, I wondered how some of these “experts” managed to keep straight faces while doing their work. For instance, after poring over “43,000 hours of data and more than two million miles of driving,” the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute concluded that “almost 80 percent of crashes . . . involved drivers who were not paying attention to traffic for up to three seconds before the event.”

A childlike sense of wonder is no doubt a good thing for a researcher, but sometimes Vanderbilt is rather too easily amazed. His book is much better when describing behavior that seems genuinely counterintuitive. He reports, for example, that in 1999, China had fifty million cars compared with over two hundred million in the United States, and yet had almost 84,000 road deaths compared with 41,500. Guilelessly, he asks, “How could the country with so many fewer vehicles have so many more deaths?” One obvious answer, which anybody who has ever seen the traffic in China might give, is Because everybody there drives like a maniac!” But Vanderbilt has a more nuanced response, which requires him to invoke something called Smeed’s Law. It states that as traffic increases in a country, so do the number of people killed on the roads—but only up to a point. A moment arrives when the death rate is perceived as unacceptable, the government reacts, perhaps in response to public demand, and drivers, in the interest of self-preservation, begin to drive better, or, as Vanderbilt puts it, adopt “a more developed traffic culture.”

This raises the question of why different cultures are able to accept, or at least live with, widely varying fatality rates. For all the hand-wringing about road safety in the US, the annual rate of death is nearly triple that in the UK (14.7 deaths per 100,000 population compared with 5.4). And how do the Russians tolerate a rate that’s more than the UK’s and US’s combined (24.5)? Perhaps such questions are not strictly answerable, but there are times I wished Vanderbilt had grappled with them a bit more fiercely. He has a tendency to end chapters with bland platitudes such as “By working together . . . we can make things better for everyone” or “It is all more complicated than it appears. We would do well to drive accordingly.” This sounds all too much like a self-help book, and it’s really not much help.

There may be no unifying theories or grand conclusions to be drawn, which is a problem for Vanderbilt. The book’s chief pleasures for me were its unexpected statistics and “amazing facts.” Since reading Traffic, my conversation has been littered with such gems as: In New York, in 1867, horses killed an average of four pedestrians a week; more households in America own three cars than own one; driving consists of over fifteen hundred “subskills”; parking is responsible for nearly one-fifth of all urban traffic collisions; more than 90 percent of our roads are uncongested more than 90 percent of the time. This is all a lot more interesting, and certainly more entertaining, than talk about “gap acceptance decisions” and the revelation, for instance, that people in Delhi who wanted urgently to get their driver’s license got it before those who didn’t. Whether any of this satisfies Vanderbilt’s ambitions to tell us why we drive the way we do, and what it says about us, I doubt.

Geoff Nicholson is the author of fourteen novels, most recently The Hollywood Dodo (Simon & Schuster, 2004). His nonfiction title The Lost Art of Walking will be published by Riverhead in November.

Advertisement