Archive for April, 2009

Supreme Court: Accidents During Crimes Are Still Crimes

I found this New York Times piece, on a recent High Court ruling of a gun that accidentally discharged during a robbery, noteworthy in light of recent discussions here and elsewhere of the often slippery interplay between the word “accident” and criminal behavior on the road. The following paragraphs are suggestive in terms of thinking about someone who “accidentally” kills a pedestrian, say, while traveling at a high, unlawful speed down a city street:

“Accidents happen,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the 7-to-2 majority in the case, Dean v. United States, No. 08-5274. “Sometimes they happen to individuals committing crimes with loaded guns.”

True, the chief justice said, “it is unusual to impose criminal punishment for the consequences of purely accidental conduct.” But criminals, he said, must bear the consequences of the unintended consequences of their unlawful acts.

Any sort of gunshot during a bank robbery, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “increases the risk that others will be injured, that people will panic or that violence (with its own danger to those nearby) will be used in response.”

Posted on Thursday, April 30th, 2009 at 12:09 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Mobile Muse

During the final installment of the New York Academy of Science’s excellent “Science of the Five Senses” series last night, the singer/songwriter Roseanne Cash (who recently underwent brain surgery) was talking to neuroscience researcher/author Daniel Levitan (author of This Is Your Brain on Music) about the source of inspiration — i.e., “the muse.” She relayed a funny story about how Tom Waits was driving down the highway one day when a song came into his head. “Not now!” he yelled. “Can’t you see I’m driving?”

I personally haven’t had too many flashes of inspiration while driving — too much else is competing for attention. I do find walking (and Amtrak’s “quiet car”) to be particularly useful to helping solve problems, or stir thoughts, but I’m not sure whether this has more to do with the act of walking or merely the fact that I’m stepping away from the thing that I’m working on. Not sure if anyone has seen any research on this question — namely, mobility and the thought process.

As a bit of an aside here, Levitan also told an interesting story, told to him by an academic mentor, that was on my mind as I walked down the street this morning. Imagine a lake, and that on the shoreline of that lake there have been two shallow trenches dug in, six feet or so, with shallow water from the lake filling in. Picture also some fishing bobbers or similar floating in those trenches. Then imagine yourself sitting on the water’s edge, with your back to the water, but the floating objects visible in front of you. Now imagine being asked to describe what was going on in the lake — e.g., how many sailboats there were, how many swimmers, the height of the waves, the direction of the wind — based merely on how those objects were bobbing up and down. Sounds impossible, no? But that, he implied, is essentially what we do with our human sense of hearing, as our ears (those shallow trenches) — sharing a mechanism also found in fish — read the minor tremors and perturbations of all these sound waves lapping against the shore of our consciousness, creating meaning out of this invisible landscape. I’m not recounting the story with sufficient clarity or eloquence, but I found the idea compelling, and this morning tried to inventory all the sounds I could hear at once on the street, wondered why I paid more attention to certain sounds than others (feeling a bit like Harry Caul from The Conversation), and the whole process of interpretation — after all, as Levitan said, it’s not like the waves come with little tags saying, “I’m a garbage truck.”

Posted on Thursday, April 30th, 2009 at 8:40 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Via Good Magazine, the above image comes from architectural photographer Benny Chan, who will have a show called Traffic!, featuring large-scale overhead photographs of Southland freeway infrastructure at the Pasadena Museum of California, beginning May 31st.

Is that an IHop in the offramp?

Posted on Wednesday, April 29th, 2009 at 3:05 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Dude, Where’s My RoboCall?

Strange moment today. In the car, listening to Brian Lehrer talk about a flood of bogus “your car warranty is about to expire” robocalls that have been contaminating America’s cell-phone networks.

I park my car. I see that I have a message on my cell phone. I retrieve the message. A voice comes on “your car warranty is about to expire…”

Posted on Wednesday, April 29th, 2009 at 2:56 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Final Four of Everything

If you’re a fan of Final Four-style brackets, and wonder how they might be applied to things like, say, Clint Eastwood films, I’d advise you check out The Final Four of Everything, edited by Mark Reiter and Richard Sandomir.

I’ve got a spread in there on license plates. Spoiler alert: Maine wins.

Posted on Wednesday, April 29th, 2009 at 2:32 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Visit for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

Viewing this video of a texting bus driver who rammed into another vehicle(s) on the highway, a few things came to mind:

1.) The passengers, it seems, saw him texting; did any feel empowered to say something?

2.) Although he apparently tried to deny it, he was caught in the act by camera; which makes me wonder how many crashes related to in-vehicle communication are not reported as such (and this by the way is a very typical distracted-by-mobile-device crash, giving one’s self a presumably comfortable “cushion” and then seeing that cushion instantly disappear).

3.) Psychologists suggest we feel risk more intensely when we feel it is out of our control. Does someone view this behavior with a more critical eye than than they would cast onto their own similar behavior — in which they may be operating under the “illusion of control”? E.g., the surveys that show a majority of people opposing texting while driving, and then substantial numbers saying they’ve done it.

(Horn honk to Hard Drive)

Posted on Wednesday, April 29th, 2009 at 9:34 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Enabling Hit and Run in Utah

The law sends a strange message in Utah. If you hit someone while driving a car, and you’re drunk, it’s better to run. Even if you’re caught.

Posted on Wednesday, April 29th, 2009 at 8:57 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Scofflaw Bailout

This state of Washington plan to help drivers pay off tickets is up there with Mitterand’s old traffic ticket amnesty programs in terms of its traffic safety benefits.

Posted on Wednesday, April 29th, 2009 at 8:39 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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How’s My Traffic Control?

I love the simplicity of this Lego “Satisfaction Post” (满意柱) which apparently has been placed at an intersection in Shanghai to give passerby (pedestrians, presumably) a chance to offer feedback on how they think traffic is being controlled at that location.

The scheme is devilishly simple: Placing a red (!) ring on a peg is a thumbs-up, placing a blue means a thumbs down. The results are there for all to see (there’s also a suggestion box for written comments). A sign at the bottom says: “LEGO reminds you to please abide by traffic rules.”


Posted on Wednesday, April 29th, 2009 at 8:31 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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That Old Time Religion

I have come to view Road Use Charging symposia as prayer meetings. We preach to the Converted, whine about Congestion (you should see the pictures!), decry the free-road Infidels, mock the road-building Atheists, re-explain the evident Dogma of Adam Smith’s market economics, and await the messiah of Multimodal Commuting – led by transit and bicycles, of course.

That’s from Bern Grush’s entertaining and illuminating dispatch from TTI’s Symposium on Mileage-Based User Fees.

Posted on Tuesday, April 28th, 2009 at 2:33 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Past as Prologue: The Detroit Edition

Fuel efficiency standards, government bailouts, intransigent corporate cultures, Americans’ undying thirst for large cars… it’s beginning to sound like 1980 again. Where’s my K car?

From the archives of the New Yorker, this Detroit dispatch, by Joseph Kraft and titled “The Downsizing Decision,” (interestingly, the word only seems to refer to making cars smaller, and not laying off workers) is worth a look.

Sample paragraph:

Then, in April, 1979, G.M. introduced a compact four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive vehicle, produced as the X-Car and marketed as the Chevrolet Citation, the Pontiac Phoenix, the Oldsmobile Omega, and the Buick Skylark. Thanks to the comprehensive reduction in size, G.M. more than held its own at the time of the second round of gas lines. Its share of the market for American-built cars soared to over sixty per cent—and set new monthly records, which, among other factors, put Ford in trouble and sent Chrysler running to the government for help. Even though hard hit by the recent slump, with first-quarter profits down eighty-eight per cent from a year ago, G.M. is the only major American car manufacturer in the black. In April, it has accounted for sixty-five per cent of sales of American-built cars. Robert Stempel, the general manager at Pontiac, told me, “These days, it’s exciting to be at G.M.”

Posted on Monday, April 27th, 2009 at 3:34 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Where’d You Learn to Drive?

On a rooftop, actually.

The image (of a “super driving school”) comes from the Japanese architecture firm Atelier Bow Wow. It is one of many urban oddities found in their fascinating study Made in Tokyo, an offbeat and highly recommended “guidebook” I’ve only recently gotten around to reading. The rooftop-driving-school in Kanamachi is part of a category they call “da-me architecture,” or “no-good architecture”: “Anonymous buildings, not beautiful, and not accepted in architectural culture to date.”

A number of these odd buildings seem to have an unusual relationship to cars and roads (in particular, the expressways, which as the book points out were put up rather frantically ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, and thus are “mainly sited over public land, parks, the palace moat and rivers”); as the authors note, “traffic space has introduced into architecture in order to allow the execution of the highly developed goods transportation systems.” An “expressway patrol building” in Roppongi abuts directly on the freeway, its parking lot bleeding into a line of highway traffic. There’s a car park buried underneath a city park in Shibuya; also in Shibuya is the aptly named “bus housing,” a big apartment complex built over a bus terminal. If you went looking for a driving range (golf, that is) in Meguro, your best bet would be the roof of the taxi office. In Nishikahei, meanwhile, there’s a set of tennis courts within the spiral interchange linking the expressway to the Kannana (seventh) traffic ring road. And at the giant AutoTech department store in Kitamachi, you can head to the store’s in-house bowling lanes while you wait for your car to be repaired.

Not to mention the famous automated parking garages, for cars and bikes alike.

Posted on Monday, April 27th, 2009 at 1:34 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Safety Film of the Week

The latest from the U.K.’s Think! campaign, a bit in the “j-horror,” ghostly revisitation school of traffic safety film making (sans the girls with long black hair).

As an aside, given that there’s some tooth-brushing here, have you ever noticed how 99% of feature films feature a shot of dental hygiene? I sometimes wonder if it’s some great conspiracy by the ADA, or if it’s just a quick and cheap way to show “humdrum domesticity.” Start making a census of this and you’ll be surprised (when you’re finished with that game, you can move on to regurgitation; I mean, it really is shocking how many films feature people throwing up).

Posted on Monday, April 27th, 2009 at 11:36 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Bike Locally

I found the most telling — and really, the only actionable — bit of this whole piece in the New Scientist piece about a computer model on the pros/cons of mandatory cycle helmet laws came in the last line:

However de Jong, a native of bike-loving Holland, makes clear that he would not discourage people from wearing helmets. “I go to Holland and places like that, and I don’t wear a helmet,” he says. “I used to live in London, and I wore a helmet all the time.”

Posted on Monday, April 27th, 2009 at 11:14 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Is this Love or Congestion?

Sydney’s transport commissioner was recently talking about congestion in his city and made this analogy:

“It’s like being in love. If you think you are in love, you are in love. If you think you are in traffic, you are in traffic.”

He was trying to make the point that people tend not to think of traffic in relative terms. To wit: “It’s no good for me saying, ‘Oh, it’s much worse in New York or Paris.’ ”

I’m not sure if this is some kind of power-of-positive thinking exercise, in which case the next time you encounter heavy traffic you could repeat the following mantra: “I am not in traffic. I am not in traffic.”

It also hints at how elusive traffic is; sure, the engineers have their “level of service” designations and all that, but there is no universal standard for “bad” or “good” traffic. People in North Dakota might get itchy when they fail to make it through a traffic light on the first pass; a person in L.A. might feel lucky to make a left turn on the second arrow. And when one hears figures comparing early 20th century urban speeds in London or Manhattan being the same as they are now, should this even be termed as congestion or “bad traffic” and not simply be the default operating condition?

(thanks Richard)

Posted on Monday, April 27th, 2009 at 8:14 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Not on My Block

This story from the Houston Chronicle details a very typical traffic happening: A group of residents on a well-to-do street got their block cut off to through traffic, which has resulted in more traffic on every other nearby street.

There is a kind of paradox that exists in terms of how people feel about traffic in their neighborhoods: Everyone wants a.) to drive, and b.) wants quick access to fast roads, but no one wants traffic on their street. But you can’t have one without the other, unless, of course, as in the story above, you redistribute inequitably.

Posted on Monday, April 27th, 2009 at 7:34 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Things I Didn’t Know

Via The Infrastructurist:

“A commonly cited statistic is that a 70 ton tractor trailer does as much damage to a roadway as 10,000 passenger cars.”

Could this be true? Roughly calculating that a 70-ton trailer would be 20 times the weight of the average car, it seems a mismatch, to say the least, that the damage done by the truck would be 10,000 times greater. Unless there is some serious non-linear action going on, some threshold of massive deterioration which trucks routinely cross — but then one wonders if the economics wouldn’t shake out towards building stronger roads, or making trucks smaller. One also wonders why tolls for trucks would be that much higher.

Anyone see any real data?

Posted on Friday, April 24th, 2009 at 4:53 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Ahem Signal

Reader Jesse asks a question about a situation that occurs regularly in traffic:

I saw a car today stuck behind an SUV. The car wanted to turn right at a red light, but the SUV was sitting there waiting for the green.

It was obvious that the car wanted to turn right, he had his signal on, he would creep up a few inches every now and then, and he was making moves to creep by the SUV, but did not have enough room. And I thought, I’m sure if the driver of the car could politely ask to get by the SUV would let him. But with his other methods of communicating failing (turn signal, creeping), the only thing left would be honking.

Honking is pushy. I thought, what if there were other audible signals? Something less pushy that sounded more like an ‘excuse me’ than a “HEY!” Has anything like that been attempted or marketed?

While I know of other alternative signaling systems that have been tried, I’m not aware of anything on this order. Of course, with existing horns, there’s a certain range of expression — the quick tap generally means something different, or is expressed differently at least — than the long blast.

But it is difficult to send a precise message with a horn, and if the person doesn’t understand what they are being asked to do, confusion and perhaps hostility will ensue. One reason this sort of thing is easier dealt with outside the car is that we can gesture with our eyes – we have white sclera in our eyes precisely for this reason, some have theorized — and indicate what we are asking of a person and boost the chances for cooperation.

This raises another point; in New York City, as no doubt elsewhere, we could use a quieter, secondary horn — sort of an “ahem signal” — for reminding people to move when the light has turned green. Sure, there’s the headlight flash option, but that assumes the driver ahead is looking in the rear-view mirror. Of course, when I see the person ahead is on a phone, the loud blast comes in quite handy.

Posted on Friday, April 24th, 2009 at 4:33 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Public Roads Are Not Private Places

I was struck by this passage, from a piece by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books, about Google’s Street View:

The Information Commissioner’s Office and the Metropolitan Police Commission in 2008 both concluded that Street View didn’t breach any privacy or security rules, and it was on that basis that the company went ahead with the project in the UK. (Street View has also been launched in France, but since it’s illegal under French law to publish photographs of private citizens without their permission, I have no idea how they’ve got away with it.) It’s difficult to say exactly why Street View seems to be crossing a line: after all, people’s addresses are freely available via the electoral register. Adding a photo of someone’s house doesn’t compromise their privacy any further. So the sense of invaded privacy is finally hard to defend.

He also notes that how you feel about Street View is a function of one’s age:

It’s been causing some controversy since its launch here, and from the non-scientific sample tests I’ve been running, it constitutes a Rorschach test of people’s attitudes to privacy and modernity. Most people my age and older instinctively dislike it. There seems to be something fundamentally not right about total strangers on the other side of the planet being able to look at a picture of my house. Younger users don’t see the problem: but then their attitudes to privacy are hard to understand, across the digital generation gap. The briefest look at Facebook or MySpace or Twitter shows a fundamental shift in how guarded people are about their private information: the younger generation really doesn’t seem to care.

But I was curious about this concept in light of the supposed debate over red-light cameras and the like, one aspect of which is said to be “privacy.” But just as it is acceptable for Google to send its cars down public streets to take pictures of those streets, and whatever happens to be occurring at that time, I see no reason why it is not acceptable for law-enforcement to photograph cars using that street in an illegal fashion.

As the IIHS puts it, “Driving is a regulated activity on public roads. By obtaining a license, a motorist agrees to abide by certain rules, such as to obey traffic signals. Neither the law nor common sense suggests drivers should not be observed on the road or have their violations documented. Red light camera systems can be designed to photograph only a vehicle’s rear license plate, not vehicle occupants, depending on local law. Only vehicles driven by motorists who violate the law are photographed.”

The only real difference I can see between a speed camera and a police officer holding a radar gun is that the latter will capture many fewer violators. We can also reframe the issue from the point of view of the potential victim of a traffic law violator — how has one person’s “privacy” infringed upon their rights?

Posted on Friday, April 24th, 2009 at 3:25 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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A Safer Way

An interesting new report from the U.K.’s Department for Transport, titled “A Safer Way: Consultation on Making Britain’s Roads the Safest in the World,” notes that the country, which already has among the safest roads in the world and has cut fatalities by 18%, is aiming to reduce road casualties by a further one-third by 2020. As the chart above shows, the U.S. is in rather a different group of company (this measure is, albeit, per 100,000 persons so does not account for miles driven, but still…)

One part of the strategy is an increase in “self-enforcing” 20 MPH speed zones in urban areas (London now has more than 700, it notes).

Research suggests that pedestrians struck at 30 mph have about a 1 in 5 chance of being killed. At 20 mph the chance of a pedestrian dying is 1 in 40. In order to improve safety on the streets where we live, we will amend our guidance on speed limits, recommending that highway authorities, over time, introduce 20 mph zones or limits into streets that are primarily residential in nature and which are not part of any major through route. Similarly, we will encourage local authorities to consider introducing 20 mph limits or zones in town or city streets, such as around schools, shops, markets, playgrounds and other areas where pedestrian and cyclist movements are high.

The DFT will also be studying what speed reductions are theoretically possible without engineering treatments:

We will, however, also research the effect on speeds and casualties of wide‑area, un‑engineered 20 mph zones. As introduced in Portsmouth and proposed for a number of other cities, these are implemented through 20 mph signs alone. Our previous evidence shows that these have the effect of reducing speeds by 1–2 mph (as opposed to engineered zones, which can reduce speeds to near 20 mph) and are therefore most suited to roads where average speeds are already low. We will, however, re‑examine this issue in the light of the evidence provided by our forthcoming research.

Interestingly, the U.K. has already seen substantial speed reductions on local streets — whether this is due to enforcement, engineering, or education (or a bit of all three) is unclear.

The percentage of vehicles that exceed the speed limit on 30 mph roads was lower in every vehicle category in 2007 than it was ten years earlier (Figure 7.1). The improvement is particularly marked for cars, for which the percentage exceeding the speed limit in 1996 was about three‑quarters. This fell to just under half in 2007.

The implication of this goes beyond safety.

Not only do these zones make our streets safer, but they also have potential to reduce pollution and improve public health by encouraging walking and cycling. The limited evidence gathered to date suggests that people walk and cycle more in areas subject to 20 mph zones. We believe that these road safety measures will have the effect of enhancing both public safety and public perception of safety, so encouraging more walking and cycling.

Posted on Friday, April 24th, 2009 at 11:25 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:

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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



April 2009

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