Archive for September 9th, 2008

Learning to Live with Large Trucks

A reader named Joyce heard me somewhere or other on the radio mentioning how I thought the drivers of cars were not given adequate instruction in how to maneuver around large trucks. This was based in part in conversations I had had with Daniel Blower at the University of Michigan and a number of studies that have analyzed crashes between large trucks and passenger vehicles, and found that cars seemed to bear a larger share of the “contributory factors” in crashes (this is complex, though, so I urge you to view the full report). Just to take one simple barometer, in fatal truck-car crashes, according to Blower, the drivers of passenger vehicles were much more likely (eleven times) to have been drinking prior to the crash. There are certainly hazardous truckers, to be sure (and perhaps there will be more in a less regulated future), but in general they are trained drivers who are attuned to driving because it’s their job (many driving their own rigs). But another problem, perhaps less commented upon amongst the general public, is that car drivers treat trucks as other vehicles. As one study put it: “One reason why some car drivers perform unsafe maneuvers near large trucks may be that they simply do not know the risks associated with driving near trucks.”

I had a taste of this myself a few years ago when I rode along in an 18-wheeled tractor-trailer. I was astonished at how often cars would quickly change lanes, just in front of the truck, and how those cars would essentially vanish from sight beneath the high, long hood of the truck; and also how much work and time it took to get the truck to respond to things like being cut off. It actually changed the way I subsequently drove around trucks, treating them not as slower-moving obstacles to dart around but in general just trying to keep as far from them as I could.

In any case, blog reader Joyce recommended I look at John McPhee’s book Uncommon Carriers, and so I did. I was struck, in light of the above, by the opinions of the driver McPhee profiles in the opening essay:

“Ainsworth said he could teach a course called On-Ramp 101. ‘We get many near-misses from folks who can’t time their entry. They give you the finger. Women even give you the finger. Can you believe it?’

I could believe it.

‘Four-wheelers will pass us and then pull in real fast and put on their brakes for no apparent reason,’ he said. ‘Four-wheelers are not aware of the danger of big trucks. They’re not aware of the weight, of how long it takes to bring one to a halt, how quickly their life can be snuffed. If you pull any stunts around the big trucks, you’re likely to die. I’m not going to die, you are.”

Ideally, I suppose, large trucks and cars wouldn’t actually share the road. But all this leads me to wonder if this is an area of driver education that needs to be amped up — I certainly don’t remember any special attention given to this when I got my license.

Incidentally, Ainsworth went on to say, in the book:

“Gratuitously, he added, ‘Atlanta has a lot of wrecks due to aggressive drivers who lack skill. In Los Angeles, there’s a comparable percentage of aggressive drivers, but they have skill. The worst drivers anywhere are in New Jersey. Their life cannot mean a great deal to them. They take a lot of chances I wouldn’t take— just to get to work on time.”

We’ve all got our biases, I suppose, but I always have suspected the Garden State (where my in-laws live and I spend a lot of time) of being the tailgating capital of North America.

As an aside, I’m going to be on the “Freewheelin'” show tomorrow morning (Wednesday) on Sirius’ “Road Dog” channel. As an XM owner, I’ve often listened to that network’s equivalent channel, “Open Road,” which features quirky hosts like Dale “The Trucking Bozo” Sommers and is an otherwise fascinating glimpse into a subculture that’s bigger than you might imagine (I’ve been surprised at how many truckers call into NPR talk radio when I’ve been on — calling from the truck stop I hope).

Posted on Tuesday, September 9th, 2008 at 10:44 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Through the No-Lights

One interesting, if unsettling, thing about traffic is that people often have a shaky grasp of the traffic code, or completely opposing views of what the “right” thing to do is. This piece from the Grand Rapids Press notes that when traffic lights malfunction, the average driver tends to treat the new condition as a four-way stop. But Michigan law, it seems, says that major roads and state highways have right-of-way preference. Some people want the law changed, others think it works fine.

But these differences of opinion can literally collide, as in the crash cited in the article. I was struck by the almost Beckett-like usage of the term “no-light,” hereby defined as: A state in which traffic lights are non-functioning.

“The westbound driver, James Boldi, 29, of Grand Rapids, was blamed, but, “I slowed down, stopped,” but the other driver didn’t. “The guy just drove through the no-light.”

Posted on Tuesday, September 9th, 2008 at 7:45 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Transport column to me at:

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



September 2008

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