Archive for October 30th, 2008

Art That Stops Traffic (or Traffic That Stops at Art?)

I was listening last night to Frances Anderton’s interview with agit-prop artist Robbie Conal on KCRW’s Design and Architecture and was quite surprised to hear, out of nowhere, a discussion of traffic lights.

Why? Because, Conal noted, at every intersection in L.A. there are controller boxes for the traffic signals — “virulent spawn of HAL” — I think he said. These, it turns out, make perfect surfaces for displaying things like posters. So Conal, when he was starting up, went out and actually measured the dimensions of these boxes, and created appropriately sized posters (also using Helvetica Bold so that it could be read by drivers). He noted that if a driver missed one at a certain intersection, he could serially repeat them at a number of intersections so he’d be guaranteed a viewing (depending on the cycle timing!)

This makes Conal, I suppose, LADOT’s unofficial ‘artist in residence.’

Posted on Thursday, October 30th, 2008 at 3:13 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Drive-in Voting

Like those human specimens on the off-world colony in Wall-E, is there anything Southern Californians won’t do in their cars?

P.S. What if you happen to hear an ad on the radio while you’re pulling up to the ATM/voting machine? Doesn’t that violate rules?

Posted on Thursday, October 30th, 2008 at 1:14 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Behavioral Revolution

Reading David Brooks’ elegant summation of how behavioral psychology and economics can help explain the dynamics of the financial crisis — to explain, as he puts it, “why so many people could have been so gigantically wrong about the risks they were taking” — I couldn’t help but think of another area rife with questions of risk and decision-making, namely ‘the way we drive.’

Whether from personal on-road experience, or from reading studies, or from examining in-car footage of crashes and near-crashes, I am often struck by how often people seem to put themselves, and others, at great risk. Following closely at high speed on the interstate, or driving fast through a neighborhood street, they act in a way that suggests they believe that nothing could go wrong, or that they would be in control if it did. Over time, this behavior is typically rewarded, perhaps through sheer luck, until the ‘black swan’ event that they never expected actually happens. Then, as is often the case, begins a process of denial, an attempt to assuage the cognitive dissonance that has come between the image of themselves as a good and cautious driver and an event that was ‘beyond their control.’

Some quite literal connections can be drawn between the behavior of traders and the behavior of drivers. For one, both activities are prone to the ‘above-average effect’ — studies have shown how both large groups of traders and drivers define themselves to better than average. What’s also interesting is the gender question; research has also shown men seem to be more susceptible to the above-average effect. As Brad Barber and Terrence Odean showed in their paper Boys Will Be Boys, a study of a large brokerage house found that men made many more trades than women, per account, seemingly indicating a heightened sense of confidence, but that their portfolios on average earned less than women. Given the male dominance in the trading sector, it’s not hard to extrapolate these findings to the larger financial crisis. It also need hardly be pointed out that men are involved in more fatal crashes than women — overconfidence mixed with a greater propensity for risk-taking.

Another connection is the way we act on the information we perceive. “And looking at the financial crisis,” writes Brooks, “it is easy to see dozens of errors of perception. Traders misperceived the possibility of rare events. They got caught in social contagions and reinforced each other’s risk assessments. They failed to perceive how tightly linked global networks can transform small events into big disasters.”

This passage reminded me of a recent conversation I had had with a journalist in Abu Dhabi, who was telling me about the massive, fatal chain-reaction crashes that have occurred on fog-bound highways there. Fog is a classic perception problem: Differences in contrast affect how we perceive speed. Moving through fog, drivers actually feel as if they are moving more slowly than they are. So they continue to drive fast, much faster than they should. They may also drive close to the vehicle in front of them, thinking, falsely, that seeing the taillights of the driver ahead is safer than not seeing anything. All this is fine until the rare event happens, and that ‘tightly linked’ network, full of people reinforcing each other’s risk assessments and acting on what they think is sufficient information (but which may disguise hazards around the bend), find themselves in a calamitous crash.

Behavioral psychology isn’t part of the driver’s ed curriculum, of course, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be, given that attitudes and behavior are as, if not more, important than driving skills per se. And the simple vision test that’s given is fine for testing the strength of one’s vision, but left unmentioned is the idea what we see of the world does not always represent the world as it is.

Posted on Thursday, October 30th, 2008 at 9:36 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:

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage:

For editorial inquiries, please contact Zoe Pagnamenta at The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency:

For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau:

Order Traffic from:

Amazon | B&N | Borders
Random House | Powell’s

U.S. Paperback UK Paperback
Traffic UK
Drive-on-the-left types can order the book from

For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

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



October 2008

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