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Navigating The Science (And Sociology) Of 'Traffic'

Morning traffic is a perennial problem in New York.
Morning traffic is a perennial problem in New York.

"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.

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