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Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us) [Paperback]

Tom Vanderbilt
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
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Book Description

6 Aug 2009

Get stuck in ... Why do some people become demons when they get behind a wheel? Why does the other lane always move faster? Why do New Yorkers jaywalk (and nobody does in Cophenhagen)? And why should you never drive with any beer-drinking, divorced doctors named Fred?

Driving is about far more than getting from A to B. As Tom Vanderbilt's brilliant, curiosity-filled book shows, it's actually the key to deciphering human nature and ... well, pretty much everything. From the etiquette of horn-honking to bumper stickers you should avoid, from gridlock in ancient Rome to why getting rid of road signs actually reduces accidents, Traffic will change the way you see yourself, and other people (and not just through your windscreen).

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Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us) + On Roads: A Hidden History + Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life From Breakfast to Bedtime
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Product details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (6 Aug 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141027398
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141027395
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.8 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 204,349 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"A surprising, enlightening look at the psychology of human beings behind the steering wheels.... Jammed with delicious you've-got-to-be kidding moments.... Required reading for anyone applying for a driver's license."--"The New York Times Book Review" "Fascinating, surprising . . . Vanderbilt's book will be a revelation not just to us drivers but also, one might guess, to our policy makers.""-"Alan Moores, "The Seattle Times" "Traffic gets about as close to the heart of modern existence as any book could get . . . Engagingly written, meticulously researched, endlessly interesting and informative, [it] is one of those rare books that comes out of the depths of nowhere.""-Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World" "An engaging, informative, psychologically savvy account of the conscious and unconscious assumptions of individual drivers.... Full of fascinating facts and provocative propositions.""--Pittsburgh Post-Gazette" """An engrossing tour through the neuroscience of highway illusions, the psychology of late merging, and other existential driving dilemmas.""--Discover" ""Manages to be downright fun."""--Road and Track" "Smart and comprehensive . . . A shrewd tour of the much-experienced but little-understood world of driving . . . A balanced and instructive discussion on how to improve our policies toward the inexorable car . . . Vanderbilt's book is likely to remain relevant well into the new century.""-"Edward L. Glaeser, T"he New Republic" "A delightful tour through the mysteries and manners of driving.""-Tony Dokoupil, Newsweek" "A breezy . . . well-researched . . . examination of the strange interaction ofhumanity and multiton metal boxes that can roar along at . . . 60 m.p.h. or sit for hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic.""-"Patrick T. Reardon, "Chicago Tribune" "Traffic will definitely change the way you think about driving, which also means changing the way you think about being human."-Michael Agger," Slate" "[A] joyride in the often surprising landscape of traffic science and psychology.""-"Abigail Tucker, "Smithsonian Magazine" """Tom Vanderbilt is one of our best and most interesting writers, with an extraordinary knack for looking at everyday life and explaining, in wonderful and entertaining detail, how it really works. That's never been more true than with Traffic, where he takes a subject that we all deal with (and worry about), and lets us see it through new eyes. In the process, he helps us understand better not just the highway, but the world. It doesn't matter whether you drive or take the bus--you're going to want to read this book."" ""--James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds" "A great, deep, multidisciplinary investigation of the dynamics and the psychology of traffic jams. It is fun to read. Anyone who spends more than 19 minutes a day in traffic should read this book.""--Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author The Black Swan" "Fascinating, illuminating, and endlessly entertaining as well. Vanderbilt shows how a sophisticated understanding of human behavior can illuminate one of the modern world's most basic and most mysterious endeavors. You'll learn a lot; and the life you save may be your own.""--Cass R. Sunstein, coauthor of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness" "Everyone who drives--and manypeople who don't--should read this book. It is a psychology book, a popular science book, and a how-to-save-your-life manual, all rolled into one. I found it gripping and fascinating from the very beginning to the very end.""--Tyler Cowen, author of Discover Your Inner Economist" "A well-written, important book that should hold the interest of anyone who drives a car.""-Dennis Lythgoe, Deseret News" "An engaging, sociable tour of all things driving-related.""-Joel Rice, The Tennessean" "Traffic changes the way you think about driving. For that reason alone, it deserves your attention."-Dan Danbom, Rocky Mountain News"Intriguing . . . Somehow manages to plunge far more deeply than one would imagine a meditation on travel possibly could. Perhaps without intending to, Vanderbilt has narrowed in on the central question of our time . . . His book asks us to consider how we can persuade human beings to behave more cooperatively than selfishly."-Elaine Margolin," The Denver Post" ""Vanderbilt investigates . . . complexities with zeal. Surprising details abound."""-The New Yorker" ""Fresh and timely . . . Vanderbilt investigates how human nature has shaped traffic, and vice versa, finally answering drivers' most familiar and frustrating questions."""--Publishers Weekly" ""Fluently written and oddly entertaining, full of points to ponder while stuck at the on-ramp meter or an endless red light."""--Kirkus" ""This may be the most insightful and comprehensive study ever done of driving behavior and how it reveals truths about the types of people we are."""--Booklist" ""Tom Vanderbilt uncovers a raft of counterintuitive factsabout what happens when we get behind the wheel, and why."""--BusinessWeek" ""Fascinating . . . Could not come at a better time."""--Library Journal" ""Brisk . . . Smart . . . Delivers a wealth of automotive insights both curious and counterintuitive."""-Details" ""A literate, sobering look at our roadways that explains why the other lane is moving faster and why you should never drive at 1 p.m. on Saturday."""--GQ" ""An engrossing tour through the neuroscience of highway illusions, the psychology of late merging, and other existential driving dilemmas."""-Michael Mason, Discover" ""Funny . . . Enlightening . . . Want to spend 286 pages having a good time and learning a whole lot about something you do every day for an hour or two? Buy this book."""-Ben Wear, Austin American-Statesman" ""I'm very glad I read this book . . . It tells you a lot about traffic. But of course it does more than this. It's really a book about human nature."""-William Leith, Evening Standard (UK)" ""A richly extended metaphor for the challenge of organising competing human needs and imperfect human judgment into harmonious coexistence."""-Rafael Behr, The Guardian (UK)" ""Automobile traffic is one of the most studied phenomena in advanced societies . . . Mr. Vanderbilt has mastered all of it. Arresting facts appear on every page."""-Christopher Caldwell, Financial Times (UK)"

About the Author

Tom Vanderbilt writes on design, technology, science, and culture for many publications, including Wired, Slate, The London Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, Artforum, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine and Popular Science. He is contributing editor to award-winning design magazines I.D. and Print, contributing editor to Business Week Online, and contributing writer of the popular blog Design Observer. He is the author of two previous books: Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America and The Sneaker Book.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable and Informative 21 Oct 2008
Tom Vanderbilt is a great author. He has managed to write a book about one of the most mundane, boring, simplistic topics and turn it into an exciting, interesting and informative piece of work. Every single sentence backed up with years of studies from experts in the field of traffic (yes...experts on traffic) makes for an incredibly interesting read. I won't got too much into detail but Vanderbilt cites many examples of how our eyes can easily deceive us on the road, and also talks about 'risk homeostasis' where we tend to adjust are our behaviour relative to the risks involved e.g. Wearing seatbelts = Faster driving etc. This part at the end was most interesting.

All in all, after reluctant to read it, as it was given as a present, I have learnt never to judge a book by its topic, not matter how boring or dull it may sound. It's a truly enjoyable read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating read 4 Feb 2009
Who would have thought that the bane of our lives could be so interesting? But traffic is mass human behaviour, and watching it (from the outside!) gives real insight.
"Traffic" is well written and has changed the way I drive, hopefully for the better.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reflections on Getting from Here to There 24 Sep 2008
If you've ever been stuck in traffic alone (and who hasn't been?), all kinds of thoughts have occurred to you about how poorly the highways are designed, why drivers are so inconsiderate, what else you would like to be doing, and how to get out of this mess! Since cell phones have arrived, I regularly receive calls from my wife and children while they are stuck in traffic hoping that I'll have some suggestions for them. Tom Vanderbilt takes that vague reactions and tests them out.

It turns out that driving isn't so natural for humans, and we don't always do it right. While we are unhappy about what others are doing, we overestimate the quality of our own driving.

Even though it's very difficult for a machine to learn to drive effectively, humans get to the point where they drive without paying attention. There's a price to pay: Make the road too boring, and some people will fall asleep until awakened by a rumble strip or they crash into an immovable object such as a tree.

It turns out we lose a lot of our humanity when we drive on good roads at high speed. It's all about us then. Slow things down enough and surround us with easy ways to hurt other people, and we look people in the eye and act like a good neighbor.

The most amazing parts of the book explore ways that attempts by traffic engineers to make roads safer and to carry more traffic have backfired. The engineers, it seems, think we are rationally moving objects rather than people who like to drive around a little to get a change of pace in our lives.

He also tests out some basic subjects where there's wide disagreement, such as, should you merge as soon as possible when a lane is being dropped . . . or speed along in the closed lane until the last minute?
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Buy this book 12 Nov 2008
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
An emotion that I had difficulty suppressing while reading this book is envy. It deals with a subject about which I have been banging on for more than three decades (Risk), and along comes this young whippersnapper who does it so much better. He has written a popular book; the consensus of other reviewers is that he has picked up a worthy subject, that most people are predisposed to find dull, and made it interesting! But beyond that he has also produced a book that should become a standard reference work for everyone concerned about road safety.
Much of what he has to say is unconventional wisdom - chapter 7 is entitled "Why Dangerous Roads are Safer". It is counterintuitive until you read it, and then it becomes common sense.
He has read, digested and explained an impressive body of evidence: the book has 90 pages of notes. It will be used to settle lots of pub arguments, but also, hopefully, to inform and transform the thinking of researchers, educators and practitioners in the field of road safety.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Useful and fascinating 25 Aug 2008
As a typical American who drives to work, traffic is a huge part of my life. Why we do what we do (road rage; careless driving; passive-aggressive driving) has fascinated me for years. Vanderbilt is a journalist who went to the experts rather than trying to answer the questions himself. Some of the answers go all the way back to our evolution. Some answers seem intuitively right, if difficult to prove; many seem counter-intuitive, and some have no answers yet.

What puts this book above and beyond what I ordinarily read is how useful it is. I honestly feel I'm a safer driver for having read it and may live longer to read more great books from these insights. I can't recommend it highly enough for anyone who cycles, walks in the vicinity of cars, or drives.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating 23 Mar 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A fascinating read about the psychology of driving. As a trainee ADI this book has been invaluable in giving me some insight into how drivers think and behave. A really recommend this book for anyone who drives.
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By NewPud
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
You need this book.

My feelings on landing at page 286 were of breathlessly unbuckling my 6-point safety harness in the front seat of a Mach 2.5 fighter, having been catapulted from a carrier deck, afterburnered by an expert from the navigator's seat vertically to the edge of space, plummeting to sea level to streak inverted beneath the Golden Gate bridge, rolling looping and stall-turning seamlessly through or past every nook and cranny of the subject. Time travel is thrown in: ancient Romans had our problems, too!

The thorough reference notes finish on page 383 and there is a short but concise index.

Reference 1 for the `Epilogue: Driving Lessons' warmed my heart: `The Isaac Newton School of Driving: Physics and your Car".

I've written in a popular driving instructor magazine on this, like John Adams banging on but few listening. They're too frustrated sitting in in a stop-go tailback of their own making. They've never even watched Bill Beatty or Andrew Marr cracking the 'Phantom Blockage' on YouTube. Car radio may ease the pain but Vanterbilt points to the cures.

Once I took top prize at a dry and dusty technical conference of pump manufacturers:

I knew nothing of the subjects, but had been asked to write and prepare on behalf of a colleague, mugging up then presenting his work in a form intelligible to me, and attractive to a diverse audience. Tom Vanderbilt has done this for Traffic.

Is it moving objects, or moving people? Traffic engineers view pedestrians as annoying grit in the machine; but `a pedestrian is someone who has just parked their car'. Do engineers abandon their humanity when they step into the office? Should we control or cajole traffic? That's why it is all so interesting.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Over researched
I made it to about half way through this book before stopping. it appeared to me that the author would just keep jamming more and more research into the book but without really... Read more
Published 5 months ago by T. J. Stickland
5.0 out of 5 stars standard of driving in UK
the standards of driving in the UK are at an all time low despite confirmation from
DSA and Essex police that motorists are being educated!!
Published 9 months ago by John W Pepper
1.0 out of 5 stars No useful information whatsoever.
Full of useless American theories and statistics, I could find no comparison to any form of driving habits demonstrated by the average driver I have encounter in my 45 years and... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Mr L H Welch
3.0 out of 5 stars Kindle Edition - no TOC
Good book - plenty of useful content for research but why do Kindle editions always seem to come poorly formatted and a trifle lacking? Read more
Published on 2 Sep 2011 by S. Keeling
5.0 out of 5 stars Traffic: You will never look at a traffic jam in the same way again.
In this book, Tom Vanderbilt looks at the subject of traffic from an eclectic range of perspectives. Read more
Published on 19 April 2010 by Jennifer Tipping
5.0 out of 5 stars Well Researched and Interesting
A well researched and thorough book that reads like a good article in "Wired" but book length! A little US centric but manages worldwide coverage. Read more
Published on 12 Dec 2009 by Sir Furboy
4.0 out of 5 stars Plenty of interesting facts on the subject of traffic but no synthesis
First of all I did enjoy the book. It is very well written and nice to read - assuming you have even the slightest of interests in the topic. Read more
Published on 8 Nov 2009 by AK
2.0 out of 5 stars Traffic - an unending stream of facts
Traffic was recommended to me by a colleague and got raving reviews, as per the quotes on its cover. However, I only made it to page 80 or so and got tired of it. Read more
Published on 1 Nov 2009 by D. Haven
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing purchase
Traffic is too dry for the fun of a good read and too thin for serious social study. It reads like one large chapter of introduction or a very stretched essay. Read more
Published on 3 Sep 2009 by GPM van Roon
3.0 out of 5 stars Informative but also fragmented and one-sided
A book written by a journalist who is not specialized himself in its subject can be very informative but also fragmented and one-sided. 'Traffic' is all of those. Read more
Published on 11 Feb 2009 by C. Wildervanck
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