Archive for August 18th, 2009

Roads That Kill, Drivers Who Kill

A few kind readers have sent along an op-ed in the Boston Globe, which the website sums up thusly:

“Traffic injuries kill more than a million people a year worldwide, including 40,000 a year in the United States. Yet when a fatality occurs few people blame the roadway for the death.”

The piece makes some good, worthy points (and it’s important to remember that the concept of safer road design can also entail — gasp — forcing drivers to slow). It’s a bit like the concept of “fire-safe cigarettes.” We can try to educate people not to smoke in bed, we can fine them if they do; or we can build a device that extinguishes itself, lowering the potential for a human mistake.

But it also reminded me of a story in today’s New York Times about the deadly crash on the Taconic Parkway (in which the driver was subsequently reported to have a BAC twice the legal limit; before this, there was a grasping search to blame improper road design or poor signage). The story tries to insinuate that the parkway, designed in the 1920s, is no longer safe — the reason, of course, having less to do with the road itself than that drivers no longer feel compelled to drive the 55 mph speed limit (partially because it became a conduit for a sprawl-based commuter-shed). Curiously, though, the piece notes that the Taconic turns out to be safer than comparison roads, thereby somewhat deflating the sense of urgency that this is a road in need of serious examination.

And yet, after the crash, officials put up additional “wrong way” signs at the particular intersection where the driver joined the highway. A natural response, perhaps, but one done more out of reflex (the “accident black spot” approach) than thought: What about all the other entrances? Given that the driver drove for several minutes, clearly against the flow of traffic, what would another ‘wrong way’ sign have done? The point here is that road engineering can only get us so far in reducing deaths; driver behavior matters.

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 2:05 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Real Clunkers

The New Scientist reports on an often-overlooked topic: Truck fuel efficiency, and some efforts to improve it:

While the average fuel efficiency of the US car fleet has almost doubled in the last 40 years, today’s heavy trucks guzzle the same amount of fuel – roughly 30 litres per 100 kilometres – as they did in 1969 (see graph). In 1990, America’s truckers burned the equivalent of 1.6 million barrels (254 million litres) of oil per day, about 10 per cent of the nation’s total consumption. By 2007, this had risen to 2.5 million barrels.

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 1:40 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Significant Objects

Off-topic, but I’ve got a story up at the “Significant Objects” project — info, and story, here. Don’t be afraid to bid!

I also forgot to note another story I’ve got on Slate that you may have missed, and it’s about playpens of all things (as if traffic wasn’t a subject filled with a surplus of self-appointed experts, I’ve waded into the even more contentious subject of parenting).

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 11:34 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The High Cost of No Parking

My latest Slate column is up, and it concerns bicycle parking. I notice some of the earlier commenters, perhaps mistaking the headline for the actual story, seem to think I’ve suggested that providing better bike parking facilities will magically transform the U.S. into Copenhagen. This is not the point, of course — instead I wanted to draw attention to the often overlooked factor of parking as it applies to traffic, how this plays in as well — and even more — to cycling, and that indeed providing it (along with all the other things) may be yet another of those small ‘pull’ factors that makes it more feasible (or at least eliminates another excuse why someone cannot do it).

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 9:12 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Intexticated Yet Again

On a call-in radio program yesterday evening (a long day that began with an early appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, my first) a young driver, age 23, asked whether texting while driving should really be considered entirely negatively, given the superior texting abilities of younger drivers. There were any number of things to be said to this sort of thing; one is that the bulk of the studies showing the negative effects of phone conversation or texting while driving are indeed done using young drivers — at colleges. Researchers generally are not getting Grandma on a Blackberry and asking her to drive. A second point is that very thought — that young drivers think they are better at texting and thus “better” at texting and driving — hints that whatever manual dexterity advantages they might have, this would be squandered by more use of the device, general overconfidence, etc. I could have gone on. And there’s the above video (horn honk to Kottke) which effectively dramatizes a scene that has been playing out upon the nation’s roads.

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 8:12 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Things I Didn’t Know

Robert Puentes notes:

While we often equate the interstates to long stretches of rural roads, more than half our interstate system mileage is in ‘urban’ areas. For that reason, a broad range of tolling strategies should be considered–not solely for revenue generation but for congestion and demand management strategies such as on beltways, downtown spurs and within mega regions.

Via an interesting discussion, at National Journal’s experts forum, of whether interstate highways should be tolled (and I’m with Puentes on that one).

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 8:04 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Catch-22 in Virginia

A good article in the Washington Post unpacks some of the vagaries of laws prohibiting texting and cell-phone use while driving. My favorite passage, concerning Virginia, notes:

The law makes texting a secondary offense, so an officer has to stop a driver for some other reason before writing a texting citation. In court, the driver can say he was dialing a phone call, which is legal, or using his phone’s GPS function, which is legal. Short of getting texting records from a phone company, which isn’t allowed because the crime is a misdemeanor, an officer has no way to prove a driver was texting.

If the law seems laughable, the fine is a real joke: $20.

Maryland’s forthcoming law, by contrast, sets the fine at $500.

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 7:16 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Umbrellas of Pyongyang

Via Korea News Service comes news of an interesting traffic development in Pyongyang (a place, when glimpsed on Google Earth, doesn’t appear to have much traffic):

Pyongyang, August 13 (KCNA) — Unique platforms under umbrellas are being set up in traffic control posts at intersections of Pyongyang these days, attracting attention of people.

The round platform under well-shaped large umbrella is clearly seen at far distance.

The umbrella shields the traffic controllers from sunrays and rain and the platform shuts out heat from the heated asphalt.

The female traffic controllers are commanding the traffic with a bright face on the platform under the umbrella even in the hottest period of summer.

Passers-by stop walking for a while to see the new scene.

They say it can be seen only in the country led by Kim Jong Il.

The traffic controllers are moved by the warm affection shown for them by General Secretary Kim Jong Il who saw to it that the platforms with umbrellas are being set up this time after raincoats, rain boots, sunglasses, gloves and cosmetics as well as seasonal uniforms were provided to them.

I suppose the free cosmetics help ensure the bright face? And I don’t suppose any readers have been to the city lately, to verify whether or not these really are attracting the attention of passerby?

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 7:09 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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For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
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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



August 2009

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