Navigating The Science (And Sociology) Of 'Traffic' Traffic congestion is the bane of any commuter's morning ride to work. Tom Vanderbilt, the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, talks about the behavior that leads to gridlock — and other vehicular annoyances.

Navigating The Science (And Sociology) Of 'Traffic'

Navigating The Science (And Sociology) Of 'Traffic'

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Morning traffic is a perennial problem in New York. Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images/AFP hide caption

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Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images/AFP

Morning traffic is a perennial problem in New York.

Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images/AFP

Unexpected Driving Tips from Traffic

  • The more congested a highway is, the less likely one is to save any time by switching to a faster lane.
  • Though it may seem rude, merging at the very point where a lane ends allows traffic to more rapidly.
  • In some cases, slowing down for a yellow light rather than speeding up may increase one's odds of getting into an accident.

In Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt writes that road rage does not necessarily have to be a bad thing — letting out one's frustrations in a semi-private space may actually be therapeutic, so long as it does not result in conflict with other drivers. Kate Burton/Knopf hide caption

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Kate Burton/Knopf

"How's my driving?" ask the backs of eighteen-wheelers. Writer Tom Vanderbilt thinks it could be better.

Vanderbilt's book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) explores the sociology of driving — why roads are most congested on Saturdays, what percentage of traffic is drivers simply looking for parking, why new cars crash more often than old ones. The book is based on research and interviews with driving experts and traffic officials around the world.

Among Vanderbilt's findings is the discovery that "late merging" may actually cause traffic to move more quickly, contrary to popular belief. When a sign warns that the lane will end in a given distance, standard driving etiquette causes many to move over as promptly as possible. However, if everyone were to merge at a single point when the lane ends, the road would get maximal usage and lane changes would become more orderly. The result would be traffic that moves 15% faster than current behavior allows.

"If people were told exactly to not leave the lane that was closing until the very point it actually did close, and then we did a nice alternating merge — it would be faster," says Vanderbilt. "Another benefit would be the queue of vehicles stretching back from the construction site would be smaller."

Vanderbilt also argues that round-abouts may be safer than traditional stoplight intersections. Though traffic circles may seem confusing, they have fewer "conflict points," places where cars can physically hit an object or person. Intersections have 32 of these conflict points, where round-abouts only have 16. The round-about is particularly safe because it completely eliminates the left-turn, one of the most dangerous driving maneuvers.

Vanderbilt is a New-York based writer who covers topics such as design, technology, science, and culture for Wired, Slate, and The New York Times.

Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)
By Tom Vanderbilt

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