Road rage

“You’re a @#$%ing idiot and I @#$%ing hate you!” I yelled at a young woman recently. Her crime? Hesitating for a split second at a green light.

Of course, as I screamed, I was encased in a 1-ton sheath of metal (my stylish and sporty ’93 Geo Prism) with the windows rolled up and the doors locked, and I fully knew there was no chance in hell she could hear me. So what possessed a generally rational person to behave in this childish way? The answer to that and other vexing questions about traffic can be found in Tom Vanderbilt’s new book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).

His own quest to understand this modern human dilemma began when Vanderbilt contemplated the act of late merging. We’ve all been in that situation: a sign informs us that a lane is closed ahead and that one lane needs to merge into the other. There are those drivers that do so in advance and those that rush around the advance mergers to the front of the queue and force their way in.

Do you do that? If so, you’re an asshole, despite the fact that research shows that the space is used in an optimal manner if the two lanes take turns merging precisely at the merging point rather than in advance.

Throughout Traffic, Vanderbilt deftly interpolates cognitive and social psychology research with drier traffic engineering studies to illustrate how driving turns everyone (except me) into such goddamn morons. Humans evolved to interact optimally in small groups, where direct eye contact and facial expressions give us abundant nonverbal cues. Driving eliminates all that and confers an anonymity that is an invitation for bad behavior, and people certainly accept that invitation.

Driving also mostly eliminates feedback, so that drivers do not tend to learn from (and indeed, quickly forget) their past mistakes unless they result in an accident.

The backbone of the research in the book will be familiar to anyone who has ever had a course in cognitive psychology. If you still think the eye is like a camera, the memory is like a tape recorder, and that attention can be subdivided without each task being executed poorly, then please put down your stupid Blackberry and pick up this book. Thousands of studies show that people are poor judges of speeds, distances and time. They see what they expect to see based on past experience and cannot multitask.

In fact, the book ends on a real downer, in which Vanderbilt presents a harrowing litany of human logical failings that could turn a newborn baby into a misanthrope. For instance, new cars crash at a higher rate, probably because people perceive them to be safer and thus drive them in more dangerous ways.

Traffic is exhaustively researched. How exhaustive? There are 90 pages of notes at the end. Footnotes would have been vastly preferable, and some of the notes are paragraphs long, but a reasonable guess is that because this book is so dense with facts and assertions, his publisher probably (wisely) cut him off at 300 pages. Vanderbilt’s effort, including trips to multiple countries to study traffic in both orderly, logical Scandinavia and emerging countries with hair-raising traffic such as China and India, is admirable.

This book is a definitive work, although it is not delivered with the élan of his fellow big-thinking nonfiction writer Malcolm Gladwell, probably will not see sales to rival his and isn’t exactly a page turner. But at least that means no one’s likely to try to read it while driving.