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Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt

2011/05/27

Are you one of those people who is infuriated by stupid drivers? Do you feel a surge of road rage when drivers zoom past and then try to jump into the merging lane just before the other lane closes? Does it seem like traffic is worse now than ever before? Or are you a passenger in the car of a driver who refuses to acknowledge that he should really share the road with others? “Traffic” is a highly readable look at the culture of driving: subtitled “Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us),” this book is a little history, a little science, a little psychology all wrapped up around the topic of our modern transportation of choice.

The first chapter looks at the language of traffic — the flashing headlights, the honking, the polite wave, the middle finger, and how these can provoke feelings of kindness or rage. Vanderbilt looks at these language across gender, class, and national lines, then continues onward by looking at our own perceptions of our driving skills, and how these are more skewed than we would like to believe. He looks at recordings of drivers and compares them to the drivers’ descriptions, examines “highway hypnosis,” researches traffic in the natural world (ants never seem to have traffic jams), and considers what factors contribute to safer roads. The author discusses traffic as a worldwide phenomenon, visiting and researching traffic in Delhi, China, Copenhagen, Rome, and other places. He also takes a look at statistics regarding risk factors contributing to dangerous driving, such as demographics, lifestyles, gender, location, and of course, alcohol. Finally, he considers the tragedy of deaths on the road, and how ignored the hundreds of driving-related deaths are in comparison to lesser numbers from terrorism and guns.

This is a great book to hand to your backseat driver, although they may end up using it against you! Some of the findings in it will probably run counter to your own driving habits, or at least make you feel a little guilty. It may also lead you to reconsider some of your transportation choices. And for anyone who is trying to cut back on driving (and who isn’t these days, with the cost of gas), there are plenty of arguments in this book to help make your case.

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