Archive for February 5th, 2009

How We Decide

Slightly off topic, but just to plug Jonah Lehrer’s new book, How We Decide, a look at the inner mechanics of our decision-making process; as it happens, I’ve blurbed the book — but lest you suspect that is purely some corrupt log-rolling at work, I don’t actually know the author.

One of my favorite bits involves some recent neuroscience work on the nucleus accumbens, “a crucial part of the dopamine reward pathway,” says Lehrer; in other words, if you own one of something and acquire another, the NAcc won’t see much activation. But getting that first thing — something one craves — well then it’s on fire.

Lehrer argues that “retail stores manipulate this cortical setup.” (whether this is because they have neuro-scientists on staff, or simply rely on inherited retailing wisdom, is another question). “Just look at the interior of a Costco warehouse,” he writes. “It’s no accident that the most coveted items are put in the most prominent places. A row of high-definition televisions line the entrance. The fancy jewelry, Rolex watches, iPods, and other luxury items are conspicuously placed along the corridors with the heaviest foot traffic. And then there are the free samples of food, literally distributed throughout the store. The goal of Costco is to constantly prime the pleasure centers of hte brain, to keep us lusting after the things we don’t need. Even though you probably won’t buy the Rolex, just looking at the fancy watch makes you more likely to buy something else, since the desired item activates the NAcc.”

A-ha! I always wondered why I felt so oddly weak in front of the 48-packs of California pitted olives. I was still lusting after that 64-inch Sony Bravia! It always did strike me as a bit of a disconnect why there were laptops and such (which I never buy) directly at the entrance; as if to suggest, well, I’m really here to buy bulk garbage bags but maybe what I actually want is… a Dell notebook. Or I suspected they put that stuff before the staples because you might not otherwise reach that area (like the way supermarkets stuff milk at the very end of the store), or your cart would already be filled with tube socks and toothpaste, with no room (actual or psychic) for luxury goods. But I like Lehrer’s theory that it’s like Costco’s version of a kind of mental stimulus package, a bit of Keynesian pump-priming — I develop an instant crush on the TV, and this unrequited romance makes me fall harder for 55-gallon-drum of Chi-Chi’s salsa ten aisles further on (and that also seems like such a more virtuous and rational purchase to boot).

In any case, the book is filled with similarly fascinating excursions into the human decision-making apparatus, in all its imprecise glory.

Posted on Thursday, February 5th, 2009 at 12:58 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Road Recidivism

Via the St. Louis Post Dispatch comes this:

A wrong-way driver caused a crash that killed two adults and a boy early today and left a teen-age girl critically injured.

A random ‘accident’? Hardly.

The wrong-way driver’s history of driving trouble goes back years.

Shana Alexander, a spokeswoman with the Missouri Department of Revenue, recited a long list of administrative actions to convictions in court. He has a 1994 conviction for excessive blood alcohol; a 1995 conviction for driving while intoxicated; a 1997 conviction for driving while suspended or revoked; a 1997 conviction for DWI; and a 2001 conviction for driving while revoked. The most serious one, the 1997 DWI conviction, was out of St. Louis County.

This is the unfortunate reality with traffic enforcement. Even if you stiffen the penalties, you can’t physically restrain someone from getting behind the wheel (outside of putting ignition interlocks on every vehicle). Unless, of course, they’re in jail, where this criminal must now surely be heading, albeit too late.

(Thanks Jack)

Posted on Thursday, February 5th, 2009 at 11:40 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Don’t Fear the Raptor

I’ve seen signs on small churches in the South that warned the Rapture was coming, but I’ve not yet seen a “Raptors ahead” warning.

What began with Texas zombies, then moved to Nazi zombies, has apparently become a nationwide phenomenon, with Indiana drivers being warned of some unseen hawk presence.

“It’s kind of crazy. I’m totally confused,” said one motorist. “I’m kind of expecting … dinosaurs to run down the road, or something.”

Well, defensive driving lesson number one is: Expect the unexpected.

Posted on Thursday, February 5th, 2009 at 7:58 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Germany’s Wreck Premium

Germany’s trying to stimulate its economy by giving new car buyers a $2500 Euro for junking their old car in exchange for a model that meets the latest emissions standards. The new car need not be German. One wonders if there’s an interesting long German word for this program.

Not everyone is convinced the plan from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is best for the car industry or the environment.

Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, a professor of automotive economics at the University of Gelsenkirchen, said Merkel’s move was little more than a political gift to the car market and predicted only 20 per cent of the new cars sold would be from German companies.

“One could say the wreck premium is an economic program for the factories in Italy, France, eastern Europe and Korea. For workers in Germany, the bonus will contribute little,” Dudenhoeffer said.

Posted on Thursday, February 5th, 2009 at 7:44 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



February 2009

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