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Review: 'Traffic' is fueled by twists, turns and truths

“We think of traffic as an abstraction, a grouping of things rather than a collection of individuals," says Tom Vanderbilt about Traffic, an abstraction that for most of us is only too real, and all too individualistic.

But that's only the first paradox to Why We Drive the Way We Drive (And What It Says About Us). The everyday realities of traffic — congestion and aggressive behavior — reflect us as individuals who look out for our own interests, rather than as members of a cooperative community.

Vanderbilt uses the example of insect societies, which act cooperatively and achieve orderly and conflict-free traffic flows, ants especially. We humans are more like the locusts, who become excited by their own congestion and turn into voracious hordes.

Vanderbilt's subject isn't traffic so much as human perception, or rather misperception, in an environment "so familiar we no longer see it."

Much of the research he writes about turns up results you'd expect: that our sense of time is radically elongated waiting in queues, and that almost 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near crashes involve drivers who had not been paying attention for up to three seconds before.

Much research, however, runs against what you'd expect or hope would be true. Building more highways turns out not to ease traffic, but to increase volume and congestion: "Build it and they will come."

Vanderbilt's research confirms that cell phones are the cause of many accidents, but it isn't the dialing, when the eyes are more frequently off the road, but the conversation itself that is more dangerous.

Vanderbilt, who writes on design, technology, and culture for a variety of publications, knows how to breathe life into terms like "inattentional blindness" and "lateral design." This is a book for anyone who drives — and for commuters, it's especially recommended in audiobook format.

David Walton is a writer in Pittsburgh.


By Tom


Knopf, 375 pages, $24.95

Review: 'Traffic' is fueled by twists, turns and truths 08/02/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 3, 2008 11:32am]
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