Archive for May 15th, 2009

The Latest Slate Column…

…is up, and it’s about trains. Specifically, about HSR. No, not high-speed rail. I’m talking Harding-Era Speed Rail. Turns out things were faster on the rails back then. Read all the gory details here.

Here’s the intro as a tease:

Quick: Can you think of a technology that has regressed since the early 20th century?

Technological progress is usually considered a given. Think of the titters when you see Michael Douglas in Wall Street walking on the beach with a bricklike mobile phone. Then, it was thrilling, almost illicit—Gekko can call Bud Fox from the beach. Now, the average 12-year-old has a far superior phone: smaller, camera-equipped, location-aware, filled with games and a library of music, and so on. We’ve seen vast improvements in just a few decades, which means the gulf between now and, say, the 1920s seems almost unimaginable.

There is at least one technology in America, however, that is worse now than it was in the early 20th century: the train.

Posted on Friday, May 15th, 2009 at 3:13 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Suburban Mom Braves Downtown Houston Traffic in SUV, Lives to Tell About It

Driving to Downtown Houston – Stephanie Click – from Stephanie Click on Vimeo.

Can the Jon Krakauer ghost-written tale of survival be far behind?

OK, this poor woman has been mocked enough over at, but my first thought, reading that site’s account, was: Wait, GM is now giving out cars to bloggers to test drive and oh-so-non-critically review its fleet? No wonder they’re in the tank!

Driving alone in heavy traffic (to paraphrase the Gang of Four, “we live as we drive, alone”), she then notes that this congestion is why she’s glad she doesn’t live downtown. A bit ironic, given that it’s suburbanites causing the traffic, and that if one lived in central Houston it might actually be possible to do a thing or two without a car. Or, if you lived downtown and worked in the suburbs, you could reverse commute. But c’mon, you’ve never changed lanes? Madness indeed.

(Horn honk to Dan)

Posted on Friday, May 15th, 2009 at 3:09 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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One Reason You Should Finance a Car

Via the BBC:

A man in Germany discovered the dangers of driving an open-top car when an envelope containing 23,000 euros (£20,600) blew off the back seat.

The notes rained down on the fast-moving motorway traffic behind him.

Police closed the road in both directions for half an hour to search for the missing money. All but 3,000 euros was recovered.

The man, 23, was test-driving an Audi convertible near Hanover, and the money was intended to pay for the car.

The police have warned the public against scavenging along the motorway for the missing notes, pointing out that it would be illegal to keep them.

And things could get even more expensive for the German test-driver. The police are considering charging him for the cost of the search.

The motorway closure caused long tailbacks in both directions.

Posted on Friday, May 15th, 2009 at 2:52 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Sticker Shock

A few winters ago, I found myself in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens at Christmastime. I was struck by the presence of a number of open-air containers holding little burning piles of coal (or some such), cheerily blazing through the Danish night. What got my attention is that these were in no way marked or restricted. There were no ominous warning signs (Caution: Coals are Hot When Heated!), no barriers, no minders, no consent forms to sign. And surprisingly, there were no mass incinerations of Danes on the spot, no burning children running in terror, no medics on the spot administering salve and bandages (unless I missed that study, “On the Prevalence of Second-Degree Hand Burns at an Unprotected Heat-Emitting Device: A Weighted Exposure Analysis,” in the Royal Danish Journal of Random Minor Public Risks). Just people warming their hands, drinking their glog, and moving on.

Back in the litigious U.S., I am constantly reminded of that moment in Copenhagen. The most recent event to do this was the purchase of a rear-facing infant car seat (yes, some of you predicted there would be infant car seat posts!). Now, this is not necessarily an object one buys for aesthetic reasons, but I was dismayed to find any number of yellow-and-black warning stickers pasted all over its frame (in multiple languages), essentially warning me not to put this rear-facing infant car seat in the front seat. Given that my car doesn’t have the NHTSA-approved “latch” system in the front seat, I’m not quite sure how I’d even do this, but in any case the stickers are almost impossible to remove. Now, this is a device for which one needs to read the instruction manual rather carefully to install (of course, many people do not), so I’m not sure why it also requires a profusion of permanent warning stickers as backup. Maybe I’ll loan my car, car-seat, and infant to someone else? Well, wouldn’t I make pretty darn sure that person knew not to put the car seat in the front seat? Perhaps someone will steal my car and put my infant car seat in the front seat, smash it up, then sue me?

The reason the car seat is not supposed to go in the front seat, of course, is that it would, among other things, run the risk of being impacted by the front passenger airbag. And I know all about this device because of the virtually impossible to remove warning stickers that are plastered to the visor, warning me, in various ways, about having small, unrestrained children in the front seat! Being of sound mind and body, and having absorbed the knowledge about this via the car’s manual (among other sources), I had thought this sticker could be removed (and isn’t there something a bit creepy about a safety device coming with a warning in the first place?), but it stays to this day (apparently there are incredibly labor intensive, and not guaranteed, ways to remove it).

I am all for safety, but do we really, apart for any reason other than a potential lawsuit against a company (and I wonder how many of these been launched against the auto/car-seat makers when the product is used in an inappropriate manner), need these omnipresent warning stickers? Are we saying that we have entrusted someone enough to drive a car in the first place (a process that admittedly has been made too easy in the U.S.), have a child (er, ditto), and then still not possess sufficient intelligence to know how to handle safety devices and infants? Why must I “subsidize” — with these offensive stickers all over my stuff — the foolish acts of others? There are myriad ways to die in a car — mostly having to due with negligent acts by the driver involving the actual act of driving, as well the unlawfully high speeds these machines so easily attain (there’s no warning sticker on the speedometer, mind you) and not seating infants in the front seat. Why don’t we direct some of this attention that way?

Then we can take all these warning stickers, gather them up, and roast them in a big bonfire in Tivoli Gardens — just make sure to sign the release form.

Posted on Friday, May 15th, 2009 at 2:29 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Snap, Krackle, Steer

Massachusetts man pulled over for negligent driving. The reason? He was eating a bowl of cereal, which police found was “still cold” when they inventoried the car. He also didn’t have a license.

Police are seeking a criminal complaint against the man for unlicensed operation, failure to stay within marked lanes and operating to endanger. Based on the man’s prior driving record, police are pursuing an incompetent operator complaint against him.

(Thanks Warren)

Posted on Friday, May 15th, 2009 at 7:19 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:

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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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