Archive for October, 2008

Black Boxes

Here’s a pretty compelling argument for black box recorders and the like.

Like Jorg Haider, the driver here seems to have had a few. The black box “allegedly showed Butres was travelling at 113mph, with the throttle 70 per cent open, despite bad weather that had left the road covered in puddles.”

The driver is denying it; absent the technology, it might be harder to make the prosecution’s case (even with witnesses).

Posted on Wednesday, October 15th, 2008 at 9:16 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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So Many Ways to Stop in Canada

As just a short note following up on my comments on Montreal’s strange “Stop” signs, another thing to note of course is the linguistic variation. I’ve just returned from the Westmount region of the city, where the signs are in English (as in the one posted below, which, as notes, seems a bit odd since the English bit on the street signs has been blacked out).

But one also seems to find bilingual English/French, as well as signs in Mohawk, Inuktitut, and Kahnawake — there may be more. In any case, an interesting reminder of how culture trickles into the standardized regime of traffic safety.

Posted on Monday, October 13th, 2008 at 5:14 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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“Based on voting records, people would rather drive than vote”

An interesting piece from the New York Times on the growing problem of handling older drivers who shouldn’t be behind the wheel. It’s quite striking how people, in the U.S. at least, take driving to be some kind of inalienable right — rather than possessing the ability to operate heavy machinery in a safe manner.

“How am I going to tell a guy who fought for this country and has two Purple Hearts that I am going to take away his license and take away his freedom?” one police chief asked at the conference.”

Story here or after the jump…

Posted on Saturday, October 11th, 2008 at 10:33 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Montreal’s Curious Stop Signs

I was struck by these “arret” signs in Montreal, which have an additional sign informing the driver of which other roadways have a stop sign. In theory, I suppose, this is meant to be a good thing, giving the driver information as to who will be stopping, etc.

But there are a few problems. The first is that it took me a few weeks to even notice the supplementary information. The second is that often the sign is just providing redundant information (informing the driver, on say, a one-way street that the opposing street will not be stopping — but of course there will be no oncoming traffic as it’s one-way!). The third, as you can see in the photo, is that it just adds more information to an already complex and quite garish bouquet of warnings.

But the most objectionable thing about these signs is that they exist at all. These are scattered all over “Vieux Montreal,” which has a warren of narrow, pre-automobile streets, with an abundance of pedestrians and cyclists (and horse-drawn carriages). Drivers should be looking at the streets, looking around, not glancing up at a sign to discern who will be stopping and who won’t (that is, if they obey the sign in the first place).

Posted on Saturday, October 11th, 2008 at 10:23 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Driving Debt

Apropos of an earlier post here noting this startling statistic, via Harper’s — “Percentage of U.S. homeowners who reported last year that they had bought a car using a home-equity loan: 27” — I was interested in Katherine Kersten’s comments here about the origins of consumer debt:

“In 1909, Henry Ford created the Model T, offering mobility, convenience and liberation beyond Americans’ wildest dreams. Everybody wanted one. But even after production improvements brought the price down, the Model T cost $345 — a budget-breaker for most Americans.

Ford had manufactured, for the first time, “a mass-produced consumer’s item that cost between 10 and 20 percent of a family’s annual income,” writes historian Daniel Boorstin in “The Americans: The Democratic Experience.”

“Ford was a staunch advocate of frugality and prudence. He maintained that folks should scrimp and save until they had enough cash to buy a car. But other business operators had bolder, if not better, ideas. They quickly concocted the consumer “installment plan” — a form of financing previously used only to purchase real estate.

In 1923, U.S. manufacturers sold more than 3.5 million passenger cars, according to Boorstin. About 80 percent were purchased on some kind of time-payment plan.

Installment plans spread quickly in the decades that followed, enabling Americans to acquire desirable items from refrigerators to power boats.”

Posted on Friday, October 10th, 2008 at 9:39 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Human Drama of the Railways

If I can go multi-modal for a moment, I’ve got a piece in the current Metropolis (here or text after the jump) that looks at a new show at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum, Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America and the Railway, 1830–1960, in the context of the current state of rail.

Here’s a transpo teaser:

“One of the reasons rail travel can feel outdated is that journey times are often of the last century—or worse. The Brattleboro Reformer notes that in 1938 one could travel the Connecticut Yankee (one of a number of options) from Brattleboro, Vermont, to New York in four hours and 42 minutes. Today, there’s only one train, and it takes around six hours—when it’s on schedule, which about 75 percent of the time it’s not.”

Posted on Friday, October 10th, 2008 at 9:21 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Speed: Are Teens the Only Problem?

Ford’s new “MyKey” program has been getting a lot of press. As Scientific American sums up:

“MyKey has a transponder chip that, once plugged into the ignition, allows car owners to program their car’s computer. This includes setting the car’s maximum speed limit as high as 80 miles per hour, and to issue warning chimes when the car’s speed reaches 45, 55 or 65 miles per hour. Although a driver can still do a lot of damage at 80 miles per hour, and it exceeds most speed limits, this speed does allow for more maneuverability during highway driving (particularly if a driver needs to pass the car ahead).”

All the press has noted that this is meant as a way for parents to have some influence over their son’s or daughter’s driving. Given the overinvolvement of teens in serious crashes, on balance I think it’s a worthwhile idea (even if an 80 MPH governor is quite beside the point on, say, a normal suburban road).

But I also wonder about the subtle message these sort of technologies and programs send. Indeed, whenever you hear about some program to monitor driver behavior or provide driver feedback, it always seems to be oriented towards teens. This makes sense on the level that learners need the most feedback and monitoring, and are at the highest risk on the road, but it also seems to suggest that the rest of us are quite fine to go at whatever speed we think is OK, and that there’s nothing really to address in that.

When you look at the numbers of speed-related crashes, the evidence suggests the problem is hardly limited to teens. As I’m currently in Canada, I’ll refer to some Canadian research (though there’s little reason to doubt it’s much different in the U.S.).

Looking at this report from Transport Canada, it’s quite clear that younger drivers pose the greatest risk in terms of speed — some one in three fatal crashes happened to drivers between 16-24 (that age range obviously extends beyond the teenage years).

But it hardly stops there. Overall, some eighty percent of speeding drivers in fatal crashes are under 45. And one of the most interesting trends identified was that speed-related crashes were actually growing faster among drivers over 45 years of age than those younger than 45, as the chart below notes.

Clearly, it’s more than a “teen driving” issue — and it raises the question of who’s minding the minders.

Posted on Thursday, October 9th, 2008 at 8:58 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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From the Good Intentions Gone Bad Dept.


I know this came out last year — but hey, those lanes haven’t gotten any less crap, have they?

I do wonder if Crap Towns have a higher share of Crap Cycle Lanes.

Buy it here.

Posted on Tuesday, October 7th, 2008 at 6:41 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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While We’re on the Subject of Denmark…

Mikael at Copenhagenize wrote me recently to note that the Politiken, the newspaper mentioned in the previous post, has for the past few years been making it a point to write up the details of every traffic fatality that occurs in Denmark.

The deaths, represented starkly in a field of red crosses (moving your cursor over each reveals the details behind the incident). The website, in Danish, can be viewed here.

As I discuss a bit in the book, statistics for traffic deaths are a bit confounding. Unlike large-scale events, like the recent train crash in Los Angeles, they tend to involve small numbers of people (often just one), scattered about the country. These individual tragedies add up to a severe problem on an epidemiological level — yet this presents its own problems. We hear, for example, at the end of the year, an annual toll of highway fatalities, but as the work of Paul Slovic has demonstrated — people feel less compelled to respond as the statistical number goes higher (and as an aside, most people in the U.S., in surveys at least, don’t know how many people are killed in traffic every year).

And then, when talking about taking steps to reduce fatalities, weird factors, like a kind of “proportion bias,” creep in. In a paper by Fredrich, et al., titled “Psychophysical Numbing: When lives are valued less as the value of lives at risk increase,” published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the researchers found, to quote Slovic, “that people required more lives to be saved to justify mandatory anti-lock brakes on new cars when the alleged size of the at-risk pool (annual braking-related deaths) increased.”

So what Politiken is doing presents a few possible responses. One, it might raise people’s awareness of traffic risk (at least those who read the newspaper). The second, though, is that tallying up the numbers may “numb” people to a certain extent, making them feel that such deaths are inevitable (to be fair, the newspaper does give the details behind each). In that vein one wonders whether it would be more effective to write at length about only a few deaths, but at great length, making the victim seem like “more than just a number.” Slovic’s research has found that people are much more willing to make donations to save the life of a refugee when it’s only one refugee they’re told about, rather than masses of refugees. Of course, with traffic fatalities, there’s no one to actively save, which also makes campaigns difficult. In any case, I do think Politiken is to be commended for its novel approach (Streetsblog was doing a similar thing for the New York City-area but seems to have stopped) to an enduring social problem. Curious for any opinions one way or the other.

Posted on Tuesday, October 7th, 2008 at 4:47 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Improving Traffic, Copenhagen Style

From Denmark’s Politiken newspaper comes one of those dispatches that remind you of what a remarkable place Copenhagen is.

As the piece notes:

“Nørrebrogade, one of the capital city’s main thoroughfares, is to be closed to car traffic for the next three months in a trial closure which may be made permanent…. The trial is designed to improve bus and bicycle traffic on a road that normally carries 33,000 cyclists, 65,000 bus passengers and 17,000 private cars per day.” Those are my italics, and can you imagine that phrase being uttered anywhere in the U.S.?

Anyone got any updates on how it’s proceeding?

Posted on Tuesday, October 7th, 2008 at 4:15 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘The Perfect Highway Would Have no Onramps’

I’m quoted a bit in this piece by David Filipov in the Boston Globe about the travails of merging in Massachusetts. One of the main issues seems to be a variety of design standards, each with its particular codes of behavior:

“State highway officials are aware of the yield problem. Neil Boudreau, State Traffic Engineer for MassHighway, experiences it every day on his commute to Boston on I-93. It’s more of an issue for the state’s older highways, he said. Although they have been upgraded to meet national standards for speed limits set out in a guideline Boudreau calls “The Bible,” many Massachusetts roads “were designed for a different era.”

Today, the Commonwealth builds roadways with a longer acceleration lane for drivers entering the highway. (Take, for example, the Big Dig.) The new onramps don’t need yield signs because drivers going at the same speed in the same direction are able to merge easily, Boudreau said.

But as a result, there can be different rules for different onramps, sometimes on successive exits. At Exit 7 of Route 3 in Plymouth, the connection with the new, high-speed section of Route 44 features the newfangled onramps, but Exits 6 and 8 on Route 3 are old-style, with shorter acceleration lanes and a yield sign.”

It’s actually a bit ironic that longer onramps need to be built today, as cars accelerate much faster now than they did in the days of those short ramps; the problem, I suppose, is that mainline flow is going much faster and there’s so many more merging interactions these days.

Posted on Monday, October 6th, 2008 at 10:52 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Most Startling Sentence of the Day

Comes from an article in the Las Vegas Review Journal about problems with older drivers:

“Of Nevada’s nearly 1.7 million licensed drivers, 14 percent, or nearly 233,000, are age 65 and older. Nearly 14,000 are age 85 and older. The oldest licensed driver is 102.”

I sincerely hope that license is only used for a golf cart or some such.

Posted on Monday, October 6th, 2008 at 10:31 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Solving Dilemma Zones

I’m intrigued by the technology described in this article to reduce so-called “dilemma zones” — i.e., the moment when a light is turning yellow and an approaching driver is caught in a dilemma: They’re going to fast to stop yet they may still catch some of the red.

The report notes: “Indecision within the dilemma zone contributes to crashes at high-speed intersections. If a car is traveling at a steady speed or accelerating in that zone, the sensor relays that information to the traffic light, which will give the car a longer green light and time to clear the intersection.

My only question here is the “human factor.” If drivers know they are to be rewarded by gunning it towards the intersection, may not that also pose all kinds of risks? If a steady stream of fast vehicles keeps getting picked up by the sensor, adding time to the signal, when does the signal ever decide to change?

Posted on Monday, October 6th, 2008 at 10:14 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Montreal Talk

For those Canadian readers — and I know you’re out there — and more specifically those in or near Montreal, on Thursday, October 16th at 7 p.m. I’ll be talking about Traffic at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. (where I happen to be spending the month of October).

Posted on Friday, October 3rd, 2008 at 2:54 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Why More Roads Create More Traffic: The Jazz Age Version

The “induced travel” argument has a long history. This comes from Alvan Macauley, president of the Packard Motor Car Company, in a 1925 pamphlet titled City Planning and Automobile Traffic Problems:

“Since the advent of the automobile, however, the amount of traffic carried by a main thoroughfare seems to be dependent largely upon how many the thoroughfare can carry. Increasing the width of roadway and making possible an additional lane of travel each way will in many cases find the added capacity entirely taken up within a few months, either by diversion from other less favorable routes or by actual increase in the use of cars by those living in and passing through the city in question.

Just how this problem can be solved and what provision should be made for future increase in traffic it is difficult to state definitely, and to this extent a count of present traffic might seem to be void of direct results or even of value.

Posted on Friday, October 3rd, 2008 at 2:32 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Poll Toll: The Risks of Driving and Voting

From the Chicago Tribune comes news of a new hotbed of risk on the road: Voting.

“The study found that on average, 24 more people died in car crashes during voting hours on presidential election days than on other October and November Tuesdays. That amounts to an 18 percent increased risk of death. And compared with non-election days, an additional 800 people suffered disabling injuries.”

The authors are none other than Donald Redelmeier and Ronald Tibshirani, whose work appears in several places in Traffic. No word on whether risk was higher for voters for the winning/losing side (as was the case in their “Super Bowl” study); or whether risk was lower in places where voting can be done by mail-in ballot.

“This is one of the most off-the-wall things I’ve ever read, but the science is good,” said Roy Lucke, senior scientist at Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety. He was not involved in the study, which appears in Wednesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

Luckily, I live exactly one block from the public school in which I vote (though I do have to cross a pretty busy street).

Posted on Wednesday, October 1st, 2008 at 4:16 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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To Wear Or Not to Wear (and Is That Even the Right Question?): Ian Walker on Cycle Helmets

When I was in the U.K. doing radio interviews for Traffic, I would often get asked if wearing cycle helmets actually made things less safe for cyclists. This happened primarily because the book features rather striking research by Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist at the University of Bath, and this was mentioned in the press kit.

To briefly summarize, in his study (published as “Drivers overtaking bicyclists: Objective data on the effects of riding position, helmet use, vehicle type and apparent gender,” in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention), Walker outfitted a bike with a device that measured the distance of passing cars. He found, among other things, that drivers tended to pass more closely when he was wearing a helmet than when not (he was struck by vehicles twice, both while wearing a helmet).

This was a surprising, somewhat controversial finding that generated a lot of news coverage. To my mind, Walker’s findings were more interesting for what they said about interpersonal psychology on the road than safety itself; mostly because I felt, and Walker seems to agree, that the primary question of bicycle safety had less to do with the helmet than other factors. As the above photo suggests, cyclists in places like Copenhagen or Amsterdam very rarely wear helmets, and yet they enjoy a much safer ride than in places (like the U.S.) where helmet-wearing seems more ingrained. The argument is often made that those places have protected cycle lanes and the like — though the photo also shows that is not always the case.

But to return to the radio interviews, I often found myself getting frustrated because the radio journalists seemed to want a handy “takeaway” answer: Well, do helmets make cyclists safer or not? The problem was, I really didn’t know (disclaimer: I do wear one, rather out of habit and without much thought other than a fear of New York City streets).

This was a problem I had in trying to give many answers relating to traffic — there are often an endless series of “on the other hand” qualifiers. As with any kind of epidemiological inquiry, traffic presents such a complex system, with so many interacting variables (e.g., do helmets make drivers act less safe) and “confounding factors” and incomplete data sets, that coming up with easy answers is impossible: and anyone who seems to have easy answers probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about. One favorite example of this for me is the nutmeg you hear drivers say, with deeply held conviction: ‘Well I’ve heard it’s not speed itself that’s the problem, it’s differences in speed.’ This is a statement that is true — except when it isn’t. It lacks context, it lacks explanatory power. We would do as well, if not better, to note that every traffic fatality/injury involves speed: If the car wasn’t moving, no one would have died/been injured.

But I was curious as to how Ian Walker, after putting his research into the world and subsequently being asked these sorts of questions, undergoing these sorts of debates, ultimately felt himself about what his findings (at least on several stretches on English roads) had revealed.

Over to you, Dr. Walker:

“The apparently simple query ‘Do bicycle helmets work?’ turns out to be the most complex question I have ever encountered. Since I published my own small contribution to the nightmarish tangle of helmet research a couple of years ago, I have read and answered hundreds of emails on the subject from interested – in both senses of the word – people. I am grateful to Tom for giving me this chance to summarize a few of my disjointed thoughts on the matter.


Posted on Wednesday, October 1st, 2008 at 4:01 pm 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:

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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
« Sep   Nov »

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