“Bewary then, best safety lies in fear.” — Hamlet, Act I, scene iii
Text Fred Flintstone
Fred first heard about Traffic — Why We Drive the Way We Do, the recent bestseller by Tom Vanderbilt, from an intriguing podcast interview from American National Public Radio. During his summer vacation with the Jetsons, he dropped into a bookshop and, after a quick glance, forked over the $24.95 plus tax to take the hardcover back to Bedrock. Even in the Jetson land of literary excess, a 402-page hardback book devoted entirely to the subject of traffic was surprising. But despite being packed with psychological and sociological research, this Traffic is entertaining and enlightening. It provides fresh insight into Bedrock’s rough and tumble byways and the drivers that haunt them.
For Vanderbilt, the problem is the drivers and not the cars, something Bedrock residents understand very well. For instance, he cites studies that show SUV drivers are more likely to drive faster, with one hand on the wheel, without a seatbelt, and while talking on the phone. He says we talk about “beating traffic” or “getting stuck in traffic” when we might better say “beating people” or “getting stuck in people.”
Vanderbilt reviews driver behavior and local rules in various countries and draws some interesting conclusions. For instance, the rotary, or roundabout, which is common in Europe and Russia but thought by many to be dangerous, can be safer than a stoplight-controlled intersection. A roundabout reduces the total number of conflict points in an intersection from 56 to 16, and studies have shown a marked reduction in accidents when intersections are converted to roundabouts.
Unfortunately, Bedrock drivers have confused roundabout etiquette: While the norm elsewhere dictates that vehicles already in the circle have the right-of-way, most Bedrock drivers seem to think those entering have right-of- way and will display serious anger toward driver who don’t yield.
Vanderbilt also defends “late merging,” an art that Bedrock drivers excel at as a more efficient method of traffic management. The conventional wisdom is that drivers should merge as they become aware of the necessity ahead (be “early mergers”) and that those who speed ahead of the line and cut in (“late mergers”) are rude. However, Vanderbilt cites studies that show a 15 percent improvement in traffic flow if vehicles stack up in both lanes and “politely” alternate at the entrance to the single lane ahead. Bedrock drivers have the late merger part right, but they come up short on the politeness, turning the process into a battle between drivers. And at high traffic times, they will fill other adjacent lanes, blocking all through traffic.
The chapter entitled “When Dangerous Roads Are Safer” cites a Chinese proverb that “an overturned cart is a warning to oncoming drivers.” It demonstrates the various ways that safety efforts can be overdone, leading drivers to be lulled by reliance on safety systems into taking more risks and ignoring other ones. Witnessing hazards on the road causes drivers and pedestrians to be more cautious.
The section “Danger: Corruption Ahead” was particularly interesting. Although traffic deaths per capita appear to fall with rising GDP, corruption appears to be a better predictor of traffic safety. Developed countries with the least corruption (Finland, Norway, New Zealand, Sweden, and Singapore) have some of the safest roads. The theory is that people in countries with low corruption are more likely to obey traffic laws. Buried in this chapter is Finland’s creative approach of tying traffic fines to a driver’s after-tax income. This system resulted in a $71,000 ticket for one wealthy citizen for speeding at 41mph in a 25mph zone. That’s one suggestion that would be interesting to see enforced in Bedrock.