Archive for May 14th, 2009

Traffic Safety Film of the Week

Well, not so much a safety film as a revenge fantasy for some beleaguered neighborhood residents (audio in German).

Posted on Thursday, May 14th, 2009 at 2:40 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘The More You Protect a Crossing, the Worse People Behave’

I’ve been interested in the work of UC-Berkeley’s Douglas Cooper and David Ragland on crashes at railway crossings. Looking at incidents that occurred between 2000 and 2004 in the state of California, they found that “of the crashes that occurred, 73 percent occurred at crossings equipped with gates, 59 percent involved vehicles moving over the crossing, and 27 percent involved vehicles that had driven around or through lowered gates. An unbelievable number, 21 percent, involved a vehicle running into a moving train.”

I couldn’t help but think of those findings when I recently came across the following remarkable passage in John Stilgoe’s book Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene, describing the early problem of dealing with vehicular traffic at railroad crossings:

“Adding gates, bells, and electric flashing lights at some crossings at first seemed to help, especially if the gates overlapped each other to prevent motorists from snaking past them onto the tracks. But by 1913, experts knew that numerically as well as comparatively more persons are killed at protected crossings,” at crossings defended by watchmen, gates, bells, lights, and signs. What accounted for “comparatively”? Certainly protected crossings usually passed many more wayfarers than unprotected rural crossings far from towns, but why did proportionately more people collide with trains there? Did carelessness born of some mad scurrying haste account for the deaths, or was it the old “familiarity with the timetable” syndrome? If anything, a sort of early-twentieth-century highway hypnosis might explain the accidents at protected crossings. “How many of you readers heard your clock strike at the most recent hour?” asks Whiting in his 1913 article. People intimately familiar with their route to work, to shopping, to school, simply did not realize the protected crossings. Lost in some sort of waking trance, they walked past the lights or drove directly into and through the gates. “Disgusted railroad men will sometimes tell you that the more you protect a crossing, the worse people behave,” Furnas noted in 1937. “They seem to figure that if the company has taken all that trouble, the drive is absolved of responsibility for himself.” So concerned were California authorities that as early as 1917 they began designing speed bumps into paved highways approaching crossings, hoping that a violent jarring would knock motorists out of their trances and apprise them that they “should cut down speed and be on the lookout for warning signals.” By 1937, after the speed bumps had increased in height to two or three feet, one magazine writer concluded that they did nothing to alert motorists. Drivers simply breezed over them, crashed through gates, and struck trains. When reformers suggested that railroad companies install gates so solid that motorists could not break through them, companies replied that such gates could not be designed. The flimsy gates, they explained, existed to permit motorists to crash through both pairs and escape death, or through the far pair if they entered the crossing as the gates lowered. By the early 1930s, the protected grade crossing displayed the gadgets of mechanical, electrical, and efficiency engineers—and all of the engineers had failed.”

An interesting early example of the challenges of safety engineering in light of human risk compensation, and clearly a longstanding problem that has not been solved.

Posted on Thursday, May 14th, 2009 at 11:30 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The HOV Economy

There was a glancing reference in Traffic to Jakarta’s “passengers for hire,” people a driver can hire in order to use the HOV lanes on the city’s crowded roads. The New York Times notes the practice is still flourishing:

Angga, an 11-year-old boy who puts in time as a jockey after school, had just returned from his first ride, beaming. He had earned just under $1 and paid less than 20 cents to return by bus to his starting-point. A black Toyota van pulled up moments later and Angga hopped inside.

“Markets in everything,” as Tyler Cowen would say. I’m not sure what an economist would term this behavior, other than unintended consequences and informal markets, but it does reflect something of a pattern, i.e., how well-meaning traffic control policies will be circumvented by clever drivers (e.g., under Mexico City’s “Hoy No Circula” program people simply bought another car with a different license plate). It also, of course, depends on a society in which there is sufficient “surplus labor” to fill such a superfluous job as HOV jockey. In the West, such a concept is only satirical — i.e., Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm hiring a prostitute to simply sit in the passenger seat so he could make the Dodger game in time via the HOV lane.

In any case, Indonesia is investigating scrapping the “3 in 1” program and going with electronic tolling.

Posted on Thursday, May 14th, 2009 at 7:17 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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Traffic UK
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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



May 2009

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