Book Review: Traffic By Tom Vanderbilt

traffic international covers photo

Not far from where I am writing this, three kids on vacation were killed recently when one of them flew his dad's Audi off the road, shearing trees 40' up and ending upside down in the lake, after collectively downing 31 drinks. Dad, quite logically, tells the press that "his son would still be alive if he hadn't been drinking or speeding that night."

Now I already know everything there is to know about driving; like George Carlin, I know that everyone going slower than me is an idiot and everyone going faster is a maniac. Indeed, reading Tom Vanderbilt's book "traffic", one learns that it isn't rocket science; it is a lot more complicated.

One learns that whenever a new safety device is installed in cars, the rate of death and injury decreases, but as much as predicted, as drivers go faster and take corners harder because of the added confidence. Or that more accidents happen to people who are not wearing seat belts- it is a form of self-selection of Darwin Award candidates. One point I found interesting, considering all the silly comments we get about bike helmets causing more injuries than they prevent, is the question of why we do not wear helmets when we drive, like racers do. Vanderbilt notes that the Federal Office of Road Safety in Australia says that head injuries make up fully half of the country's traffic injury costs. He writes that helmets for drivers is "a crazy idea, perhaps, but so were air bags, once."

Another point of personal interest was that different professions have different accident rates; Doctors get into a lot of accidents, possibly because they are tired or are Type-A risk takers. I was not surprised to find that architects do as well; my wife is always telling me to stop looking at the buildings and keep my eyes on the road.

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There is extensive discussion of Drachten and the work of the late Hans Monderman, who asked "What are roads? What are cities for?" and determined that they were for everyone, not just cars, and that it one took away the signs, drivers, pedestrians and cyclists would have to communicate and really look out for each other, leading to slower speeds and fewer accidents.

The book concludes with a discussion of our perception of risk, noting that more people are killed on the roads each month in America than were killed in the 9/11 attacks. "in the wake of those attacks, polls found that many citizens thought that it was acceptable to curtail civil liberties to help preserve our "way of life." Those same citizens, meanwhile, in polls and in personal behaviour, have routinely resisted traffic measures designed to reduce the annual death toll (e.g lowering speed limits, introducing more red light cameras, stiffer blood alcohol limits, stricter cell phone laws.)"

When it comes to cars, our judgement goes out the window; wiretapping and waterboarding is OK, 55 MPH is not. We are all better drivers than average, capable of texting and eating and driving all at once, certain that our big SUV will protect us or our little sports car is more agile. Tom Vanderbilt shows, in this easy-to-read, engaging and entertaining book, that when it comes to cars, we are all jerks, every one of us. ::Traffic

Read the first chapter in the New York Times
TreeHugger on Monderman and Drachten
Traffic Lights Replaced By...Courtesy?
German Town Scraps Road Signs to Increase Safety
Should Cyclists be Allowed to Blow Go Through Stop Signs? :

TreeHugger on Drive 55

Should America go back to 55 MPH ?
55 MPH Movement Is Gaining Speed : TreeHugger
55 MPH : It's time to bring it back. :

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