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? The answer may surprise you if you are a patient person who tries to cooperate with others.
You'll also get an unexpected tip about when to do when in a skid . . . after you steer in the direction you are skidding. This might save your life.
Those who have never read the statistics about the dangerous of driving while talking on cell phones, changing radio stations, and fiddling with other devices may decide they want to be more cautious. Driving under the influence and time-of-day driving risks will also interest most drivers.
Mr. Vanderbilt visits different traffic areas around the world and explains how things work in what seems like chaos to the American visitor. I was only disappointed that he didn't talk about the effect of potholes on traffic and accidents in areas where the roads freeze.
My only complaint was that the book contained more information than I really wanted to learn on the topic of each chapter, and much of that was engineering jargon (which I can live without). A briefer, breezier read would have been more fun: Than I could have felt like I was driving in a red sports convertible with the top down on an interesting high-speed road with little traffic while surrounded by pleasant views.