Book Review: Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt


I expected Traffic (2008) by Tom Vanderbilt to be an interesting but it proved to be a fascinating and provocative book about driving.  There’s a lot of stuff here about the assumptions and practices of driving that amazed even me someone who hates driving and obsesses over how dangerous it is.  Vanderbilt surveys the world, history, and numerous studies to evaluate the way humans operate machines at high speeds in a changing environment. Some things learned:

  • every driver has an optimistic bias – thinking they’re above average – and in the worst cases this leads to narcissism and aggressive driving
  • driving is the most dangerous thing most people do on a daily basis
  • sober speeders and cell phone users (even hands free variety) can be as dangerous as drunken drivers but are not restricted, stigmatized or punished in the same way
  • incorrect to refer to auto collisions as “accidents” as if they were out of the driver’s power to prevent.  This is seen in media portrayal of celebrity “accidents” like baseball pitcher Josh Hancock and politician Bill Janklow who were obviously at fault
  • unintentional blindness to things the driver is not looking for, as proved by the famous attention test with the basketball players:
  • there is safety in numbers for pedestrians
  • SUV & pick up truck drivers speed more
  • the Leibowitz Hypothesis that says that human beings are very bad at judging the speed of oncoming objects
  • remote traffic engineers adjust traffic signals and road use on Oscar Night so that 100’s of celebrity-laden limousines arrive on time (I think some gutsy celeb should take the Metro to Hollywood & Highland next time)
  • some Jewish neighborhoods in Los Angeles have “Sabbath Crossing” lights that change automatically for observant pedestrians who cannot push a button
  • roundabouts are safer than traditional intersections, although their perceived danger encourages the more vigilant driving that contributes to their safety
  • on Dagen H in Sweden in 1967, drivers moved from driving on the left to driving on the right: video
  • the more divisions between the “traffic space” and the “social space” in a city the more dangerous it is for everyone
  • there is a linkage between low GDP and traffic fatalities throughout the world although greater corruption also affects traffic safety
  • safety devices on cars have not made in significant impact in reducing traffic fatalities over the past 50 years.  It seems that the greater the sense of “safety” leads to more risky or inattentive driving behaviors although the issues are complex

I highly recommend that everyone who drives, bikes and/or walks to read or listen to this illuminating book.  It might make you as paranoid about driving as I am, but it also may make you safer.  This book challenges the assumptions we make about driving in the same way The Death and Life of Great American Cities challenges the assumptions of urban planning.

Author Vanderbilt, Tom. Title Traffic [sound recording] : [why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)] / by Tom Vanderbilt. Publication Info. Westminster, Md. : Books on Tape, p2008. Edition Unabridged. Description 11 sound discs (ca. 74 min. each) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.

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