NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. So you're in traffic. A driver cuts you off. There is no way to interpret that as anything but rude or maybe even hostile. So, what do you do? Race ahead so you can teach him a lesson and cut him off in turn? Or, maybe respond with an informal traffic signal - the raised middle finger perhaps? A remarkable book published earlier this year cites a study that concludes that our muteness or inability to communicate in that situation infuriates us. So, we get visibly angry to an audience of no one. We construct moral dramas in which we cast ourselves as the wronged victim and the avenging hero that we get angry to watch ourselves get angry. There are incites like that on almost every page of traffic by Tom Vanderbilt and as part of our sporadic series on books we missed, we want to talk with him and with you today about well, traffic.
How do you communicate with other drivers? What behavior invokes your sense of social outrage? Why is it that everybody else is a jerk? Tell us your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. Later in the program, the latest reincarnations of the venerable vampire. But first, writer Tom Vanderbilt joins us from our bureau in New York. His book is "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)" and Tom, thanks very much for coming in.
Mr. TOM VANDERBILT (Author, "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)": Great to be here, Neal.
CONAN: I've read after writing this book, you've determined to drive as little as possible.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Yes, which is already sort of easy as a New Yorker, because you know New Yorkers, we're a minority - the car-owning New Yorker - and just sort of leaving your parking space for the day presents an inevitable problem returning and finding another parking space. So, there's sort of a self-limiting aspect to New York driving.
CONAN: I do know of New Yorkers who got such a good parking space. They never left it. They just left the car there.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Yes. And you know Calvin Trillin managed to crank out an entire novel about this search for New York parking. So, it's a very rich sort of topic.
CONAN: Parking though - one of the things that you write about in the book. There is great controversy as I understand from reading your book about, well, parallel parking on the street. Is it a good thing or a bad thing?
Mr. VANDERBILT: Parking is an immensely complex subject. I mean if you look at sort of an average urban street and stopped people, as engineers have done, and ask where are you going? What are you doing? A lot of people are simply looking for parking, and the reasons they're looking for parking often are related to pricing. Perhaps they're looking for a free parking space on the street instead of sort of going into the first available garage.
So, the numbers of people looking for parking and the miles of their driving that's been tracked is sort of astonishing, sort of to the moon and back basically in an average urban neighborhood. So, there's been arguments to - we need to sort of price parking more smartly. This is happening in San Francisco right now. And - but parking is one of those (unintelligible)...
CONAN: Partly, does that mean more expensive or less expensive?
Mr. VANDERBILT: Yes. Sort of real-time market conditions which you know...
CONAN: Aha. That's having to do with availability, and what it's actually worth.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Yeah, which is not a bad concept given that we do that in so many other areas of life from sort of airline tickets to all sorts of other things. But, parking has been immune to that.
CONAN: There's also the frustrations of driving around the airport parking garage though there are some - the one in Baltimore, for example. You drive in it says there are three spots available down the road.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Yeah. That's sort of called ITS as a genre(ph), Intelligent Transportation System, using technology to sort of make the whole traffic process easier, and you know the day won't be far off and in some ways it's already here when our sort of iPhone will chime in where the closest available parking space is and to the letter. But a lot of those garages aren't quite wired up yet, and so we still do spend a lot of time just circling.
CONAN: Though there is a theory that you cite in your book that having parked cars on both sides of the street actually slows traffic down, makes it calmer and therefore safer.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Yeah. This is one of these age-old enduring debates within the realm of traffic engineering that a lot of people might not be familiar with whether - I mean in the 1950s it was beginning to be thought that we should probably get rid of urban parking entirely, because it basically slows traffic down - people looking for parking, moving in and out, you have sort of minor crashes that happen. And engineers thought well, streets should really be treated as basically highways just as clear as possible. But this runs into a lot of problems - you know you have businesses that are on the street that need to have clientele, and likewise there is this traffic calming benefit that you mentioned that the presence of those cars like other things - like trees, like sort of urban life in general - actually makes drivers drive more slowly. They see less space in front of them. Their sort of perception window is narrowed and they have less space to operate. So quite naturally, they slow down, because they feel sort of uncomfortable.
CONAN: And I could hear people you know foaming at the mouth. Slow down? This is excruciatingly slow to begin with. Why do you want me to slow down even more?
Mr. VANDERBILT: Yeah. This is an enduring problem in the United States. You know in the UK, they're sort of going all out with these - it's called area-wide speed cameras. So, if you drove into one part of a neighborhood, a camera would sort of register your arrival. And then by the time you left that neighborhood, another camera would register your exit, and it would basically tell you how fast you've been driving on average through that neighborhood. And if your, sort of, driving doesn't match up to what you're supposed to be going in a neighborhood, you'll get a ticket. This is sort of the next generation of speed camera, and we're talking about, you know, urban speeds in the UK of 30 kilometers an hour which I think is about 24 miles an hour or so. You know it's tough to find places in the U.S. where you see speeds like that.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Tom Vanderbilt. His book is "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says about Us)." So how do you communicate with the fellow - the gal in the other car? Give us a call, 800-989-8255; email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Josh is on the line. Josh calling from Akron, Ohio.
JOSH (Caller): Hi. I have an odd example of sort of technology taking a role in this. I saw on a favorite website of mine, ThinkGeek.com. It's a little box you just put in your back window, and it puts a LED display. It shines the lasers up into your back windshield and you can pre-program a few sayings into it. And so sometimes, as people are very rude, I'll pull up ahead of them and then have the little LED display say things to them - some of them not repeatable on air perhaps.
CONAN: I was going to ask you if there were any you could repeat on the radio.
JOSH: There are some. Sometimes it just says like, "thanks" if someone lets me out or something.
CONAN: Sometimes it says less polite things.
CONAN: Tom, I was unaware of that particular piece of technology.
Mr. VANDERBILT: I have seen these. It's a great example and they're currently available in Germany. I think if you sort of look around on the Internet you can find them and I even spoke with the designer at Toyota who a couple of years ago at the Toyota car show, they introduced a new vehicle, sort of concept vehicle, that would have essentially the equivalent of human expressions on the back - sort of signal plate there and sort of just turn signals would have things like frowns or smiles. And kind of going along that same idea and again, it raises one of these really interesting debates about, you know, whether we should have more human interaction in traffic or less. I mean arguably sort of telling someone what you think will only lead to a further altercation and in some ways it functions better because we're anonymous. And granted that a little of people don't use their existing signals very well, like turn signals - you know I'm not sure whether adding more things to control on a car is actually a good thing but...
CONAN: But Josh, it makes you feel better.
JOSH: Yeah. It can give you a sort of feeling of vindication, although I would say that it does tend to make people mad sometimes. So he does have a point. And, I'm not sure at all if it's legal. I'm pretty sure there might be some kind of ordinance or something against it.
CONAN: Well, you should be glad the FCC does not regulate those kinds of broadcast messages. So Josh, careful driving, all right?
JOSH: All right. Thank you for taking the call.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now to - this is Andrew. Andrew with us from Cleveland.
ANDREW (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking the call. I am a big fan of the classic over-articulation in speech while trying to communicate through the window glass to another driver or pedestrian.
CONAN: So you make lip reading exceptionally easy.
ANDREW: Yes. It's the whole, like, if you're trying to pull in a parking space, you know, are - you leaving, kind of thing going on. And, my own studies of traffic psychology, I am courier I drive a lot for a living, and I have noticed there is a direct proportion to - proportional link between the size of somebody's spoiler on their car and the amount of the idiocy of the driver.
CONAN: That's fascinating.
ANDREW: So the larger the spoiler the bigger the idiot.
CONAN: You cited a phenomenon, Tom Vanderbilt, in Australia where there has been this campaign which says that apparently the idiocy in traffic is a directly proportional to the inadequacies of the size of the male sex organs so people hold out their little pinkies instead of their middle fingers?
Mr. VANDERBILT: Yes, there is a great sort of billboard that - an ad campaign that shows sort of a woman holding up, you know, I don't know, and inch or two with her fingers, and saying speeding. No one thinks big of you. So, drawing this direct link between behavior on the road and overcompensation as you suggest.
CONAN: Andrew, drive carefully.
Mr. VANDERBILT: I like that theory with the spoiler, and I think he might have just launched several, you know, disorientations in the traffic research schools of America.
CONAN: And, there are so many things that seemed to be counter-intuitive. I mean, for example, one thing that Americans absolutely despise as some sort of, you know, strange and alien European import is the runabout, but you argue in fact that the roundabout, precisely because it's strange, is a lot safer.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Yeah, you know, every week in America, you know, I am reading about some new town that is unveiling a roundabout, and the story plays out in the paper the same exact way, you know, people are complaining. There is a talk of decreased safety. I was told in Wisconsin some town politicians where actually there was a recall of petition put in place, because of - these people had putt a roundabout in place. So, what you say though, and I mean, it does - we feel roundabouts to be more dangerous as we're participating in them. You have to do more - to look around more. You have to sort of make your own decisions. You have to actively navigate with other people. This feels more dangerous to us, but arguably that makes us act in a more vigilant fashion.
You know, traffic lights seem like a sort of a great safety device. They're not really safety device at all. They're sort of a way to a sign right of way. And people pay attention to them they are great, but they also you have intersections where people are going at sort of high speed toward each other and, you know, if one person misses that traffic light there is catastrophic consequence. So, in a roundabout, everyone has to slow down. So you might see a minor increase in crashes, but they're very minor crashes. And, it's just inherently a safer sort of a way to do things yet, people just find them to be quite dangerous.
CONAN: And extremely awkward and they - but don't you slow down, because you're entering. Doesn't it clog the whole system?
Mr .VANDERBILT: No. You got rid of the traffic light, you know, a lot of older roundabouts in the United States and we by the way, did invent the traffic - the roundabout. It was called the traffic circle. So, you know, it's not a European roundabout but, you know, instead of waiting in a light for 90 seconds or 60 seconds, vehicles are always moving through this things. So it's sort of more of a slow and steady organic flow than, you know, stop and go.
CONAN: I don't know. Slow and steady, that sounds pretty European to me (unintelligible). Talking about why we drive the way we do and what is says about us. More with Tom Vanderbilt in a moment. More of your calls as well. How do you communicate with other drivers on the road? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. You can zap us an email too. The address is email@example.com. Stay with us, I am Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News. This is Talk of the Nation, I am Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today about the many mysteries of the road. Why men honk more? What causes phantom traffic jams? Why in New York City more pedestrians are killed crossing in the crosswalk with the light than are killed jaywalking?
Tom Vanderbilt sat out to answer these questions and many more. To find out why we drive the way we do, his answers come in the form of the book "Traffic", and maybe can we do some extra research today with him on the radio. How do you communicate with other drivers? What behaviors invoke your sense of social outrage? Why is it that everybody else is a jerk? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. There are any number of songs that make reference to traffic, and Tom Vanderbilt mentions one of those in his book. Chely Wright's "The Bumper Of My SUV."
(Soundbite of Chely Wright: The Bumper Of My SUV")
Ms. CHELY WRIGHT: (Singing) I've got a bright red sticker on the back of my car says: "United States Marines." And yesterday a lady in a mini-van, held up her middle finger at me. Does she think she knows what I stand for, or the things that I believe? Just by looking at a sticker for the US Marines, on the bumper of my SUV
CONAN: The first issue writes Tom Vanderbilt is the struggle over identity. The narrator is upset her identity has been defined by someone else, but the narrator maybe protesting too much. How else would we know the things that you stand for of believe if you did not have a bumper sticker on your SUV, and if you're resentful at having your identity pigeon holed, why put a pigeon-holding sticker on your bumper in the first place? Tom Vanderbilt, that's just one of the many absurdities you pointed out about that particular lyrics.
Mr. VANDERBILT: And, there is also the question of, you know, how does she know that she is honking at her because of the bumper sticker? I mean, it could be the fact that she's been driving in a bad way. She might have done something illegal. She might...
CONAN: She knows because she wrote the song.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Well, exactly so. But, again it speaks to that sort of asymmetry in communication we have in traffic. We, you know, we try to say things people might misinterpret what we're saying. It's hard to send a positive message in traffic. I think we've all had the experience of being honked at for something that we take negatively and then, oh, it sort of, you've left your gas cap open or a driver trying to communicate with you in a positive way and first instinct is react negatively.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Andy. Andy with us from Lafayette in Colorado.
ANDY (Caller): Yes. Hi, great to be on the show.
CONAN: Nice to have you.
ANDY: And I - this is a great topic. I used to suffer in silence like the - your guest pointed out kind of spinning the stories of being the victim and the hero. And, then I kind of remember the words of the late great American sage George Carlin in when he pointed out that everyone who drives faster than you is a maniac, and everyone that drives slower than you is an idiot. And, just a notion that I could be the only good driver on the road kind of brings me back down to earth.
CONAN: Andy has come to a realization that is of course, statistically accurate but also statistically rare, Tom Vanderbilt.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Yeah, I mean, this is a classic thing. I mean, you get into a room full of thousand of people - ask how of you are average or better than average driver, and you'll see a majority of hands, you know, go up. And this - I am not a math, you know, Ph.D. and there might be some math problem here that is - but it seems to me that statistics.
CONAN: This is the lake will-be-gone effect you describe.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Exactly.
CONAN: Andy, thanks very much for the call.
ANDY: Thank you.
CONAN: Scott in Sacramento actually had an interesting similar point when he emailed us. When someone cuts you off or commits some unspeakable vehicular offense against you, the offended person wants to drive past them to see what kind of moron would commit such an offense. Please do not do that it reinforces stereotypes on men, women, minorities, majorities, SUV drivers, etc. Pass them, but keep your eye on the road. Don't make that mental connection between that type of person and the offense breathe it out and move it forward. Scott in Sacramento and again, good advice, not necessarily advice that a lot of people pay attention to.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Very good advice and about the George Carlin thing, another funny thing about that is, you know, there is something in psychology called the fundamental attribution error or I think it is also called the actor-observer effect, in which, you know, when we see someone else do something we attribute that to something in their character, basically. And, when we do something we tend to attribute it to the situation. So, I find traffic as a great example of this. If you hard this sort of swerve or did something sort of stupid, you'll find a reason to explain it. If you see someone else do it like this caller suggest, you'll try to find out something about them and then link that up with some flaw in their character.
CONAN: Yet in some ways, stereotypes your book says, stereotypes are valid. Men do honk more.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Yeah. You know, this is one of the great questions of driving that is sort of gender issue. And you know, I get this question all the time. You know, who's the better driver and the math is a little bit fuzzy there, too. I mean, men definitely take more risk in all aspects of driving and they are involved in more fatal crashes. I mean, there is some evidence that women are sort of involved in more minor crashes. So, you know, I'll take the minor crashes over the fatal crashes any day.
CONAN: Let's get Nick on the line. Nick with us from Greensborough, North Carolina.
NICK (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Nick.
NICK: Thanks for having me. I just want to talk about - I've developed a kind of a neat way of dealing with rather reckless drivers. I live in, you could say, medium-sized college town, but the town is actually kind of out grown in the road infrastructure. I am always seeing crazy drivers weaving in and out of traffic and, you know, just cutting me off and going really fast when the town speed limit is pretty much 45 everywhere. And, people cut me off, we pass only to get to the next stop light and you see him stuck right there next to you. So what I've started doing is when I see somebody behind me weaving in and out of traffic, and I am doing the speed limit, I will use the car next to me to kind a create wall to keep him from coming pass me.
CONAN: Oh, the rolling roadblock.
NICK: Oh, yes. But, I've kind of taken it to a new level where I will get him behind me and kind of slow down a little bit so they see the car next to me a little ahead and they pull over to try to - because think that there is going to be a window and to move next and then I'll speed up and to get him to change lanes again and get behind be and I tried to count how many times I can get somebody to change lanes before the next stop.
CONAN: And you're just hoping that they don't have an RPG in the car somewhere.
NICK: That definitely that's - I am banking on that. My record is about 10 or 12 lane shift by a very irate woman one time.
CONAN: And, this could be viewed as being well, hostile, Nick.
NICK: Well, actually, I feel like those people are a danger to other to other drivers. I mean, the speed limit is 45, and you can't really get anywhere faster in this town. It's pretty much impossible no matter how you drive.
CONAN: Nick, makes a couple of good points, Tom Vanderbilt, one of which of course, is the people who speed only to sit next to at the traffic light, which is ridicules, or you know, they go slowly over the speed bumps and then race to the next speed bump to make up the amount of time that they've lost slowing down over the speed bump. But, there is also this idea that we have this sense of social justice. We want to impose our ideas on the other vehicles on the road.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Yeah, and I think you see there is nowhere more prevalently in American driving than in the left lane on a highway which invokes sort of a strange legal cultural question because, you know, it sort of - the left lane is reserved for quote-unquote "passing traffic" and the law is different state by state so that makes it even more complicated. You know, there are a lot of people in that lane who believe they have the right to go as fast as they want. A lot of people feel like they have a right to be in that lane if they're going the legal speed limit which is obeying the law. So, you know, people - there is this tension in rights in America, you know - do I have the right to go as fast as I want? Do other drivers have the right to prevent themselves from being sort of put at risk by some else's actions? And how are we going to balance these things out?
CONAN: So Nick, you are on the cutting edge of social research.
NICK: And could I comment on the left lane thing?
CONAN: Go ahead please.
NICK: I just - I hear this all the time and I just want to specify in my mind, the left lane is for highway only and not city, because in the city, if I am in the left lane doing the speed limit, and I am going to be making a left turn, you know, 300 yards up, I am not going to get in the right lane, and have the (unintelligible)just so you can pass me. And, then maybe have trouble getting back in the left lane and miss my turn. So, I think that is definitely only a highway rule.
Mr. VANDERBILT: That's a very good point.
CONAN: That's a good point, Nick. Thanks very much. Drive safely.
NICK: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go now to, this is Fred, and Fred is with us from Ithaca in New York.
FRED (Caller): Hi there.
CONAN: Hi there.
FRED: Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead please.
FRED: Yeah. I am curious about the whole law enforcement angle. It appears that over the past few years, in fact maybe since they lowered the speed limit to 55 and then raise it back up to 65. They've allowed a certain amount of slack, and or is it just that the police have thrown up their hands and decided that they really can't do anything about it or well, because I think possibly they could in fact solve the speeding problem by just enforcing the law. So, I will take my answer off the air.
CONAN: All right, Fred, thank you and happy Thanksgiving. Tom
Mr. VANDERBILT: Yeah, that. I mean, we spend an hour talking about the speed limit and law and its implications. But, you know, I am going to plead the 5th on this and of sort of not wade to this debate, but it raises another question. Are you going to obey the law or not? And elsewhere, some studies have found, you know, that when enforcement of law is not basically there, not surprisingly a respect for it is sort of eroded. So, you know, again, we're sort of behind the curve on a lot of countries in Europe, for example on this, where, you know, enforcement is just blanket with red light cameras and such. But again, I feel like we're going to go down a dark path if we...
CONAN: If we go.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Get into this.
CONAN: Let's see, we've got Patricia on the line. Patricia calling us from Richmond in Virginia.
PATRICIA (Caller): Hey, how y'all doing?
CONAN: Very well, thank you.
PATRICIA: Good. I attend 12 step meetings, and one of the examples that people so often give to display their impression of their own spiritual fitness, their own readiness to face the world is how they react in traffic. And I found that to be true. If I'm on edge, or if I haven't allowed myself time, it's often just that moment of being in the moment. It just kind of blows your hair back, and you can be spiritually fit and deal with your issues, or you can cuss the guy in front of you, and discover that it's really something within yourself that's causing all the stress. It's not really traffic.
CONAN: So look at...
PATRICIA: Traffic just happen.
CONAN: Yeah, traffic just happens, and if you find yourself snapping, look in the mirror.
PATRICIA: Yeah. Yeah, and maybe wave at the person behind you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: OK, Patricia.
PATRICIA: That's all I've got.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Though Tom, you suggest that sometimes it could be therapeutic to have that little moment of private road rage when we're alone in our car.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Yeah, I mean, there's an economist named Herbert Guinness(ph) who's even sort of gotten - you know, suggestions that road rage can be sort of a method of sort enforcing, let's say, evolutionary fitness in a species. You know, if you have sort of a group of birds sitting there and the predator is coming along, acting, you know, one bird will sort of signal and warn the others that something is happening, so. And that makes it better for - that bird isn't gaining anything by doing that. He's helping out everyone, so Guinness sort of argues that, you know, we should maybe do our own enforcement in traffic, because a lot of violations are never going to be sort of caught by the police, let's be honest.
So, you know, are we making it worse for us by ignoring people who act up in traffic? Is that going to harm someone else down the road? How do we sort of deal with this? And, people suggested we should all be outfitted with "how's my driving" stickers.
CONAN: Uh huh.
Mr. VANDERBILT: The way that trucks do. And, you know, I think truckers are sort of picked on in this regard why they're the only ones who are getting tattled on for driving in a sort of an aggressive manner. But - and so the suggestion is to have sort of an eBay style, kind of reputation management system.
CONAN: Oh, to get rid of the anonymity we all have on the road. This would, in other words, you would have a listed reputation as a good or a bad driver.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Exactly. And, at the end of the months, you know, your sort of insurance could be adjusted or there could be some sort of actual weight to this. And, that's how it's sort of eBay functions is with feedback. People gain reputations and in traffic, we do not have feedback of really ourselves or from others.
CONAN: But, what about your next-door neighbor who doesn't like the way you put out your garbage and calls in 17 complaints on you? He's a bad driver.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of sophisticated sort of algorithms you could do to kind of look for, you know, one person constantly complaining about someone else. And, I mean, I think, you know
CONAN: There could be technological ways around this.
Mr. VANDERBILT: I mean, between and Google and eBay and the rest, we could probably figure it out.
CONAN: We're talking with Tom Vanderbilt about his book "Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. This is email from Molly in Boulder, Colorado. My ex used to do this when he was frustrated in traffic. He got a loud speaker and installed it underneath the hood of his car and fixed it so that when he got upset with another driver, he could broadcast whatever he wished to say. Usually, he'd wait until was he stop at the red light, it turned green and the car in front of him didn't move, he'd say it's green, stupid. Then he told me to look as puzzled as all of the other drivers so nobody knows where it came from.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: This is from Myka. Is your guest aware of the Michigan left? It's a left turn consisting of going past the intersection you want to turn on, going up about tenth of a mile making U-turn through the boulevard, and then making a right? Can you please explain to me the point? I guess it's people who missed their turn.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Well actually, I'm quite aware of the Michigan left. It's one of these fastening regional varieties of traffic out there. It actually is a safer system, because it eliminates left turns from the inner section itself.
CONAN: Uh huh. Is this like the jug handle turn in New Jersey?
Mr. VANDERBILT: Exactly. And you know - which I baffled for years as a Midwesterner, but I finally come around to them because, you know, again, you're asking people to make these left turns on very high-speed kind of suburban arterial roads, and that's a very dangerous thing for people to do. We have trouble, you know, gauging how fast that oncoming cars coming, judging what's a safe gap to turn. A lot of information going on there. So, the Michigan left removes that turn entirely, and supposedly works sort of better for traffic flow as well.
CONAN: This is from Val in of Cincinnati. I love to express my ranker when driving, but I drive a yellow smart car convertible with a license EINSTIN. By the time I'm next to an offending car, the person is smiling at my car and giving me a thumbs up. So, I end up smiling. The license plate is E-I-N-S-T-I-N, so where is social justice? But, I guess you could get your way. There are all those bumper stickers that we were mentioning the bumper the sticker on my SUV before. All these ways that we communicate the vanity plate and no less, another way to communicate.
Mr. VANDERBILT: And some psychologists have even argued that bumper stickers and by association, perhaps vanity plates that these sort of relate to a form of territorial marking that's going on because in traffic we're in a private space. But it's a strange private space because it's essentially public - that we're in the midst of public space but we're in private. It's very confusing, so the more we mark this sort of territoriality, they argue that the people who had bumper stickers were actually the more aggressive drivers based on sort of self-reported surveys. But I think it depends on the bumper sticker itself.
CONAN: Tom in Cincinnati emailed, Great subject. My pet peeves are great smokers that flick out their cigarettes that hit my car. It's just infuriates me so I speed up past them, get in front of them, and turn on my wind shield washers, my window washers. I get a pleasant reprieve when I see the driver having to turn on his wipers to acknowledge I've affected him in some minor manner. And add, what other Freudian symbolism that may apply? But, it makes me happy. This from Steve in Muskegon, Michigan.
I carry a valve stem remover in case a driver rudely steals my parking spot that I've been waiting for. Oohh, talk about hostile there. And, this from Brian is Syracuse, New York. The courtesy wave, a big thing for me when I stop at a four-way stop and allow somebody go before and they don't give me a wave to notify me that they appreciate the gesture. That upsets me. I always make an effort to give the wave. The wave, of course, one of the many ways that we communicate with people at traffic.
Of course, as Tom Vanderbilt points out in "Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (and What It Says About Us?)," the fact is we weren't evolved to do all the things that we do in cars at the speeds at which we do them. And, he also argues that unless you're a brain surgeon, driving is probably the most complicated thing you do. The book is filled with information on things like why most road signs have absolutely no effect at all? So, Tom Vanderbilt, thanks so much for being with us today. Terrific book.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Great to be here, Neal. Thank you.
CONAN: Tom Vanderbilt joined us from our bureau in New York. Coming up, vampires banked a toothy sum at the box office this weekend. Vamp expert Eric Nuzum will join us to review "Twilight" and tell us what's behind our most recent vampire mania. Stay with us. If you'd like to get in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. Stay with us, I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
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