It just may be as most drivers, at some point or other, come to suspect: Motor vehicle traffic is part miracle, part mass psychosis, and, if a person is to survive, a matter of oblivion to statistics. While Tom Vanderbilt’s marvelous exposé, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), does not exactly confirm that dark surmise, it does consider why perfectly agreeable, well-socialized, intelligent people undergo a transformation behind the steering wheel and behave in ways contrary to their own interests and safety. Partly that arises from advances in technology and infrastructure supporting ground transportation. As Vanderbilt shows, however, traffic is above all things a social act, but one in which participants are inhibited from divining the intentions of each other through the means that normally smooth social intercourse. Added to this problem is the paradoxical nature of traffic.
The focus of Traffic is largely on modern cars (although Vanderbilt discusses transportation history) and their drivers. “In traffic,” he writes, “we struggle to stay human.” Why this should be so is the most fascinating theme in the book. Essentially, isolation, inattention, frustration, and conceit cause the trouble. For one thing, drivers can see what others do but cannot convey what they think about it. For another, the eye contact that usually mediates social interaction is seldom possible in traffic. Each driver, alone in a car, becomes identified with the car. Unable to converse directly with others on the road, drivers make up independent narratives about their behavior and that of others based wholly on what they see cars do. The narrative easily segues into moral drama when the behavior of one driver makes another feel victimized. Worse, the anonymity of drivers, cocooned in their vehicles, increases aggressiveness in traffic, often expressed in an unfocused need to dominate. On top of such impulses, drivers have many distractions: talking to passengers, making cell phone calls, eating, drinking, smoking, fiddling with the radio, gaping at the scenery, even reading. All the while each driver typically believes that he or she is more law-abiding and skillful than those nearby. (The well-established “Baker’s law,” formulated by crash expert J. Stannard Baker, contends that drivers want to explain away their traffic mishaps by reporting circumstances of “lowest culpability compatible with credulity.”)
The impulse to drive assertively, the inattention, and the susceptibility to taking umbrage, as if other drivers are intentionally set upon harming each other, lead to anger, and anger impairs judgment. Every driver has had enough upsetting encounters to recognize that the following hypothetical incident on a four-lane highway, however absurd, is yet possible. Driver A, while talking on a cell phone, glances into the rear-view mirror, glimpses an opening into the faster traffic of the lane to the left, and swerves into it, flicking on the turn signal in the process. Satisfied the maneuver was legal and safe (because successful), Driver A moves on. At the beginning of the maneuver, however, Driver B, in the fast lane, is singing along to a rock-and-roll classic so that when Driver A swerves in front, Driver B is startled and reflexively taps on the brake. Driver C, meanwhile, impatient with Driver B for poking along in the passing lane, has edged close to Driver B’s rear bumper (and is annoyed to read there a bumper sticker with a disagreeable political slogan). Interpreting Driver B’s brake light as a message to back off (passive-aggressive braking), Driver C is irked. Accordingly, Driver C accelerates into the space vacated by Driver A, pulls even with Driver B, and makes an uncomplimentary hand gesture. Astonished and offended, Driver B replies in kind, unconsciously pressing down on the accelerator. The ensuing minor rear-end collision between Driver B and Driver D results in a rush-hour traffic jam that slows the progress of hundreds. Driver A, blithely unaware of what lies behind, is not among them.
Even relatively minor collisions can prove deadly, given high speeds and dense traffic. In 1999, for example, some forty-one thousand people died in crashes. Although that number represents a decline in fatalities since the 1950’s, it still leaves traffic as a leading killer of healthy Americans. (In countries such as China and India, which have had a sudden influx of new drivers and...
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