Archive for the ‘Drivers’ Category

Liberty City

A few months ago, I was pretty intensively playing Grand Theft Auto IV. As an urbanist, I was curious about its immersive, complex representation of the city — or maybe I just wanted to blow things up after a long day’s work.

Naturally I took an interest in the traffic life of “Liberty City,” which, like the New York that is its inspiration, is a multi-modal mix of pedestrians, cars, subways, motorcyclists, taxis — though, curiously, no cyclists (I thought it might be a programming issue, but there are motorcycles). Its protagonist, the amoral Niko Bellic, presumably not in the country legally, is also presumably an unlicensed driver (that’s the least of his legal violations, of course). At first, I drove quite cautiously, as I thought the omnipresent police might nab me for violating red lights, or even speeding. I soon learned, however, that traffic infractions were not part of the Liberty City PD’s bailiwick — even though, of course, a routine traffic stop might have netted them a gangster. In fact, you pretty much had to commit full-scale mass pedestrian vehicle homicide to even attract the attention of the police. For Niko the driver, Liberty City was pretty much a place where he was at liberty to disregard any rule of the road.

Hmmm… a city where one can routinely drive at high speeds, even in crowded urban environments, with little repercussion, where even striking a pedestrian will get you little more than a few pointed questions from the police (and in fact it may have even been the police that did it), where traffic signals are treated as optional… This is where the line between Liberty City and New York City really does get blurry.

To wit, via Streetsblog:

A new report from Transportation Alternatives confirms what New York pedestrians and cyclists have been forced to accept as a fact of life: A high number of drivers speed through city streets, regardless of the potentially deadly consequences for those around them.

“Terminal Velocity: NYC’s Speeding Epidemic” shows that 39 percent of observed motorists were driving in excess of the 30 mph speed limit. Using radar guns and speed enforcement cameras at 13 locations, TA volunteers clocked speeds in excess of 60 mph in school zones and other areas with heavy pedestrian traffic.

Most speeding drivers were traveling between 31 and 40 mph. While a pedestrian struck at 30 mph has a 60 percent chance of surviving a collision, the likelihood of survival drops to 30 percent when the vehicle is moving at 40 mph, TA notes.

The name Liberty City was well chosen by GTA’s creators as its NYC stand-in, at least in the case of many Gotham drivers: You are at liberty to ignore laws. Of course, as John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community” is “to prevent harm to others.” There’s plenty of harm, let’s get exercised.

Posted on Thursday, February 12th, 2009 at 2:37 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Dangerous Roads, or Dangerous Driving?

This piece from Fox News (after the jump as well) claims to identify the “top 10 most dangerous roads in America,” implying as well that stimulus spending might somehow be directed to these corridors of death.

But reading through the piece, the overwhelming impression left with me is not design or infrastructural shortcomings, but driver shortcomings: Speed, alcohol, fatigue.


Posted on Thursday, February 12th, 2009 at 8:15 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Drivers Go Off the Rails in Wales

The BBC reports on how the number of “near misses” at level train crossings in Wales from drivers who do not see, or willfully disregard the warning, is rising. The harrowing footage is here.

In the case shown, “the motorist admitted dangerous driving, claiming he did not see the flashing lights and failed to notice cars waiting at the crossing.” The article also notes that: “The court heard that his wife had been so traumatised by the experience that the couple had had to move to a nearby town.”

What’s interesting about the report is the stiffness of the fine, higher than many I’ve seen in the U.S. for negligent driving that did cause a crash (this was just a hair’s breadth away from that happening in this case, judging by the video). Of course, with train crossings, one driver’s action could jeopardize the lives of many more people than in a typical traffic scenario (not to mention granting themselves a likely death sentence).

The motorist was given 12 month suspended sentence and ordered to do 180 hours of community service. He was also disqualified from driving, made to take an extended test after 12 months and fined £722.

I’m all for increased driver responsibility but one wonders what design or “nudge” solution there might be for improving safety at these crossings.

Posted on Tuesday, February 10th, 2009 at 8:34 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Psychology of Aggression on the Highway

From Florida, where this sort of thing seems to happen inordinately, comes a classic tale of armed “road rage”:

Two men arrested in what could have been a disastrous road-rage shootout on Interstate 95 Sunday offered an insight into the psychology of aggression on the highway when each sought police to report the other’s actions, experts said…

The fact that each sought to report the other points to the extreme perspectives that can appear in a road-rage confrontation, said Dominik Guess, a University of North Florida associate professor of social and cognitive psychology.

“We don’t see the world how it is; we see the world through our own eyes,” said Guess, who studies decision-making as part of his research. Neither of the men probably believed they were wrong, he said.

In the end, however, both were arrested.

Posted on Monday, February 9th, 2009 at 2:40 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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‘It Was Just a Habit’

By simply installing feedback devices that alerted them to bad driving practices that diminished fuel efficiency, the city of Denver was able to improve MPG by 10% (remember, how you drive can be as influential as what you drive), reports the Los Angeles Times.

“Our fast starts and hard braking were virtually eliminated in the last six months,” he said. “This is about driver education and self-awareness — to make people more thoughtful.”

Juan Marsh, a field supervisor with Denver’s parks and recreation department, said he was surprised to learn about his driving habits — for example, how often he left his engine running while he visited a job site and spoke to a crew.

“It was just a habit,” Marsh said.

The feedback from his accelerometer “instantly made me conscious of those issues,” he said. “I just flat-out didn’t realize I was wasting fuel that way.”

I’m not sure if this was studied, but work by Green Road has found that, among drivers of fleet vehicles, those who had the best fuel economy in their driving also had the safest driving record.

(Horn honk to Planetizen)

Posted on Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009 at 4:54 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Why We Think White Stripes on the Highway Are Shorter Than They Really Are

In Traffic I mention one of the most common, and surprising, ways we are fooled by what we see on the road: White stripes. I was asked by one engineer to guess how long they are, and I was more than a bit off in my estimation.

It turns out I’m not alone. A fascinating new study, headed by Dennis Shaffer, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University’s Mansfield campus and appearing in Perception & Psychophysics, asked a group of subjects to recall from memory — as well as look at a recreated “stripe” and during an actual drive — the length of the dashes. The most common answer was two feet — which is interesting considering the federal guideline calls for ten feet.

The finding holds implications for traffic safety. Each dashed line measures 10 feet, and the empty spaces in-between measure 30 feet. So every time a car passes a new dashed line, the car has traveled 40 feet. But in this study, people consistently judged the lines and the empty spaces to be the same size, claiming that both were two feet.

“This means that to most people, 40 feet looks like a lot less than 40 feet when they’re on the road,” Shaffer said. “People cover more ground than they think in a given period of time, so they are probably underestimating their speed.”

Interestingly, Shaffer began his pioneering research when the federal guideline was for fifteen feet, which has since shrunk. But no matter.

“Wherever the researchers went, they found all lines to be close to the federal guidelines of the time. In Arizona in 2000, for instance, some lines were 16 feet long instead of the expected 15.

But even back then — when the federal guideline was 15 feet — people still thought of lines as measuring only two feet.

What’s going on?

One possible explanation: as we drive, we look out far ahead the car for safety reasons, so the only lines we really see are faraway lines that look small.

Even though lines appear to expand as a car passes by, drivers can’t safely notice that effect. Rather, the first line we can comfortably look at while driving safely is some 120 feet ahead — the fourth line ahead on the road. So perhaps we think that all lines are as small in reality as that one faraway line appears to be.

But why are so many people consistently wrong, in exactly the same way?

As to why everyone’s estimates were consistent in every experiment, Shaffer suspects that the answer has something to do with how our brains perceive geometry. Engineers design roads, buildings, and public spaces using Euclidian geometry — the system of lines and angles first described by the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid. But this study and previous ones suggest that our brains perceive objects in a non-Euclidian way.

Might this cause a paradigm shift in the schools of highway engineering, a ‘non-Euclidian’ revolution? Maybe we shouldn’t use lines at all, and instead use random geometric patterns — Mandelbrotian fractals? — to delineate highway lines. In any case, the study is useful in quantifying what most engineers, and readers of Traffic, already know. Shaffer, meanwhile, carries on.

In the future, Shaffer will examine how people perceive the size of lines that are oriented at different angles — as if seen by a driver approaching a bend in a road — and how our perceptions affect our ability to judge the steepness of hills.

Posted on Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009 at 9:27 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Gas Prices Drop, So Does Driving

Via Mobilizing the Region:

How times have changed. As of today, the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline is $1.85. This may be just a temporary drop, but it’s nevertheless relatively cheap to drive again.

And yet Americans are continuing to cut back on driving. According to just released figures from the Federal Highway Administration’s Traffic Volume Trends report, Americans drove almost 13 billion fewer miles in November of 2008 than in November 2007, a decline of 5.3 percent. That is the second biggest drop in driving of any month this year, and it came even as gas prices were falling to the $2 per gallon range.

Through the first eleven months of 2008, driving has fallen an astonishing 102 billion miles, a drop of 3.5 percent over the same period in 2007. Assuming that trend holds true through the end of the year, it would represent the biggest decline in driving since World War II.

Posted on Friday, January 30th, 2009 at 4:45 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Study: Hummer Drivers Rack Up Most Tickets

Quality Planning, whose previous studies appear in Traffic, has a new one out looking at which vehicles draw the most traffic tickets.

Number one? Hummer. (We knew this crapulous ride, a malignant tumor on the flatlining patient that is GM, had to be tops in something, given that it’s got some of the worst gas mileage on the road and, according to Consumer Reports, is consistently ranked one of the worst cars in America — poor handling, no visibility, frequent visits to the dealer, etc.).

“The sense of power that Hummer drivers derive from their vehicle may be directly correlated with the number of violations they incur,” president Raj Bhat said in statement. “Or perhaps Hummer drivers, by virtue of their driving position, are less likely to notice road hazards, signs, pedestrians or other drivers.”

Perhaps equally unsurprising, Buicks — the quintessential ‘granny’ car, oddly transmogrified into a favorite elite coach in China — rank among those vehicles getting the fewest infractions.

Posted on Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 at 8:33 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Stappers-Trappers-Openbaar Vervoer-Privévervoer!

Trying saying that quickly four times in a row!

But it comes via Kris Peeters, a mobility consultant for the city of Antwerp (and author of ‘Voorruitperspectief. Wegen van impliciet autodenken,’ or ‘Windscreen perspective: ways of implicit thinking on cars’, a book unfortunately available only in Dutch), who had written in to elucidate on the situation in Belgium (readers of the book will know that I puzzled over the country’s poor road safety record in comparison to neighboring Netherlands, and even France).

He notes that Belgium’s fatalities actually have been dropping:

“The number of people killed in traffic accidents decreased since 2001. In 2000 the number was 1470, in 2007 it was 1067. Most specialists think the explanation is double. First of all in 2003 “tariffs” for traffic offences have been raised substantially. Secondly the Flemish government (northern part of the country) started installing lots of “speed traps” (the word!) and reduced maximum speed limits significantly (most ‘regional roads’ previously had a speed limit of 90km/h, now it’s 70

But, he adds:

The last few years however the decrease of deaths and injuries seems to have stopped due to a hesitating safety policy: some of the fine tariffs have been reconsidered (and even canceled) and efforts done for enforcement are rather ambiguous.”

He also points me to a Flemish program, referenced in the subject line above:

In 2001 the Flemish Parliament introduced the STOP-principle (and since then it was officially adopted by many towns, e.g. Antwerp). In Dutch it is an acronym: “Stappers-Trappers-Openbaar Vervoer-Privévervoer” (S T O P), in English untranslatable as such: “Pedestrians-Bikers-Public Transport – Private Cars”. The principle says that when designing a new street or road the concept should respect the STOP-order: first we should check the interests of the Pedestrians, than those of the bikers — and so on. Of course the principle remains theory in most cases, but the symbolic worth of it can not be overestimated.

Posted on Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 at 2:42 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Frappuccino Effect

A librarian (the world would be a better place if there were more of them) waxes reflective on her hybrid car. Among other things, she notes:

Every car needs a MPG gauge. MPG gauges should be mandatory in vehicles. I think of this as the Frappuchino Effect, from the time my father called me to say he had learned that Frappuchinos had hundreds of calories. My dad has a bad heart, and to keep the load on his body light he’s watched his weight as long as I can remember. What seemed like a simple treat turned radioactive to him (and for that matter, to me). In the same vein, a MPG gauge in every car could get everyone driving smarter.

Posted on Tuesday, January 13th, 2009 at 7:03 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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“Red Ink in the Rear-view Mirror”

There’s an obvious reason traffic fatalities have been dropping recently, in some cases to WW II levels: People can’t afford to do as much driving, or they’re paring back the ‘non-essential’ travel, or actually doing things like carpooling (and we should note that between 196 and 2001 the average number of annual miles traveled per American climbed some 180 percent). On the heels of a previous post, there may be another reason, as this St. Louis Post Dispatch piece notes:

“Thomas A. Garrett, an assistant vice president at the St. Louis Federal Reserve, knew he deserved to be ticketed while on vacation in Pennsylvania a few years ago. But, he wondered, are traffic tickets purely about public safety? Or are other factors at play? Many motorists probably have wondered the same thing sitting on a highway shoulder waiting for a citation. But Garrett turned it into a scholarly pursuit. He decided to conduct a study.

What Garrett and a co-author discovered provides yet another reason to hate a recession.

Traffic tickets go up significantly when local government revenue falls, they found. Their study showed for the first time evidence of how “local governments behave, in part, as though traffic tickets are a revenue tool to help offset periods of fiscal distress.”

No surprise, some ticketed motorists might say. But Garrett and co-author Gary A. Wagner, an economist at the University of Arkansas Little Rock, say they confirmed a connection that seemed to exist only in isolated anecdotes. And they put a number on it: Controlling for other factors, a 1 percentage point drop in local government revenue leads to a roughly .32 percentage point increase in the number of traffic tickets in the following year, a statistically significant connection.”

Posted on Monday, January 12th, 2009 at 5:56 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘A Prevailing Sense of Tragedy’

A friend writes from Trinidad to alert me that the book had been referred to in yesterday’s Trinidad Guardian, albeit under an unfortunate set of circumstances: The road death of a promising young boxer. The editorial follows:

“Refresh message of road safety

The news of the death of boxer Jizelle Salandy and the injuries sustained by national footballer Tamara Watson only add to a prevailing sense of tragedy on the roads of Trinidad and Tobago. Just a few days before, an automobile crash threatened the careers of two of this country’s track stars, Richard Thompson and Monique Cabral. In the first week of the new year, there are already two fatalities on the books and the loss of Salandy, a young boxer with an unblemished record of wins, is particularly painful. The Arrive Alive campaign has done much to bring the issue of road safety back into public discourse, and to heighten awareness of hot-button issues like drunk driving.

If, however, there is anything at all that a troubled nation can take away from the disturbing news of the last week, it is the need to drive the message of careful and defensive driving deeper into the public psyche. Among its many warnings about crime in Trinidad and Tobago, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office cautions: “The standard of driving in Trinidad and Tobago is erratic. Road accidents leading to fatalities are a regular occurrence.” On his blog, Tom Vanderbilt, author of the book “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), noted about his visit to Trinidad and Tobago in December, 2008: “According to Thursday’s Trinidad Guardian, in a little box headlined ‘Mr. Death’ showing an image of the Grim Reaper, there have been over 250 (actually 226 at that point) road fatalities this year in T&T.

“By just one comparison, Northern Ireland, which this year had one of its safest years ever, has around 120 fatalities—with a population some 600,000 larger. The reasons are not hard to imagine: There are many two-lane, non-divided highways in the country, which people drive at routinely high speeds (life seems relaxed everywhere except the roads).” The reasons for the high incidence of accidents and road fatalities are well known; a culture that endorses speeding and a lax appreciation of the rules of the road and the lingering machismo of drinking and driving. The tragedy of Jizelle Salandy’s passing and the near misses that have spared Thompson, Cabral and others who have survived mishaps on the road recently, should serve as a caution for the upcoming Carnival season, which will run for potentially dangerous weeks.

While previous efforts at road safety education have been enthusiastic and laudable, real changes in national attitudes to road safety will only come when people start talking to each other about the consequences of dangerous driving behaviour. Those conversations need to begin among young people, the sector of society most likely to be out late at night, driving fast cars and in a state of diminished judgment. Stakeholders interested in minimising risk on the road and Government agencies and ministries with a focus on the young should encourage popular young personalities to make road safety and sound judgment when driving in risky situations part of their conversations with their audiences, colleagues and friends.

Young people with a leadership role in communities, schools and groups should be encouraged to set an example and spread positive word of the value of key safety issues like designated drivers, defensive driving techniques and the need to respect the safety of passengers over matters of ego or style. Through our youth newspaper, GIENetwork, the Guardian stands ready to play our part in delivering a message of safety and due diligence on the road to young people vulnerable to the temptations and enthusiasms of driving during the Carnival season. A reduction in the number of people killed on the nation’s roads requires an all-out national effort that touches everyone in this society, in order to forestall the loss and injury of valuable young lives.”

While I’ll all for the messages of attitudes and personal action in the editorial, there is one other aspect that deserves note, namely this fragment from a Guardian article:

“Frederick said that upon reaching vicinity of the NP overpass at Sea Lots, Port-of-Spain, Salandy hit a culvert and smashed head-on into a concrete pillar, dubbed the killer pillar. People who fell victims to that pillar in the past included Ram Kirpalani and chief immigration officer Joseph Bodkyn. Members of the Emergency Health Services (EHS) arrived promptly and pulled out a bloodied Salandy who was still conscious. She was taken to the Port-of-Spain General Hospital, but died around 8.29 am, while undergoing emergency surgery.”

I don’t know the road in question, but under modern safety engineering such an obstruction near a road intended for higher speeds — particularly one that already killed at least two other “boldface” names — would certainly be dealt with some Brifen wire, etc.

Posted on Wednesday, January 7th, 2009 at 3:43 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Manual or Automatic: Which Makes for Safer Driving?

Reader Andrew writes: “We have two cars, both with manual transmissions and have two teenage daughters that had little choice but to learn how to drive with the stick shift. There was some grumbling from the teenagers and some specific concerns from my wife about how the clutch might survive. But in the end, they both learned how to drive stick and I think they are safer drivers because of the manual transmission. This is extension of one of your main points of the book — the more driving-related things that demand your attention, the more carefully you drive. You learn to pay much more attention to the car itself through awareness of RPMs (both through the gauge and aurally).”

Andrew’s comments struck a chord, because while researching the book I had looked in vain for some definitive answer to the whole manual/automatic debate. Indeed, my editor, a manual advocate, had egged me on in this regard. But alas, it seems to be one of those enduring “mysteries” of driving, beyond easy research (if anyone knows of anything please advise). John Groeger, author of Understanding Driving has done some cognitive psychology work on “automatic” behaviors, like shifting — his argument was that any task, however, seemingly minor, is never purely automatic.

There are arguments both ways. As Andrew suggests, shifting provides a better sense of engagement with the vehicle and feedback with the road and driving environment (it has also, of course, been more fuel efficient, though the gulf seems to be disappearing). The very necessity of shifting would seemingly prevent the driver from engaging in as many non-driving tasks (though I’ve talked to many people who say that’s simply not the case, citing people quite regularly talk on a hand-held cell phone while shifting with one hand and simply not gripping the steering wheel for a moment). On the other hand, if every action like shifting requires cognitive workload, then stripping out the task of repetitive shifting would seemingly free resources, leaving the driver with spare capacity to look out for hazards, etc. (in an ideal world, mind you).

I tend to instinctively side with the manual shifters — on the idea that a more engaged driver is a better driver — though, ironically, I drive an automatic. So maybe it’s a moot debate. As to which is safer, I suspect it all comes down to the individual driver more than the shifting system. Many European countries where manual shifting is still more prevalent do have superior traffic safety records to the U.S., but there are so many differing variables (driver demographics, driving environment, etc.) that it would be well-nigh impossible to sift out shifting as any kind of prime mover. Even looking at crash records of manual versus automatic cars would be murky (e.g., do different types of people drive each type of car, are they driven in different sorts of places, are the types of cars in each case similar, etc.). So I remain on the sidelines. How do you all feel out there? Any militant manual trans types? Any automatic partisans? Anyone know of any real research?

Posted on Wednesday, January 7th, 2009 at 8:36 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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On Celebrity Drivers

I’ve got a piece on the subject over at Slate.

Sample paragraph:

“Traffic is a ruthlessly democratic environment; you can drive a $300,000 Maybach with high-luster leather seats and still sit in the same congestion, still get cut off by a 1983 Corolla with a “Visualize Whirled Peas” bumper sticker, still hit the same pothole, and still fall prey to the speed gun. Driving is one of the central areas of life in which celebrities, inescapably, are “like us,” and, not surprisingly, the vérité photographs are often taken in traffic: waiting at a light on Melrose, pumping gas on Wilshire, pulled over for speeding on Sunset. (There was a curious denouement in this respect recently when David Beckham, flagged in his black Porsche for driving too fast, was let off with a warning by an LAPD officer, who seemingly wanted to prevent the assembling paparazzi —who themselves can provoke bad celebrity driving with their own bad driving—from causing any more traffic chaos themselves.)”

Posted on Tuesday, December 30th, 2008 at 4:16 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Texting While Driving Death

Via the BBC:

“Ms Curtis, 21, told Oxford Crown Court she thought you could use a phone when driving “in the right conditions”. She denies death by dangerous driving.”

The problem is that drivers, particularly younger ones, are ill-equipped to judge what the “right conditions” are — not to mention that the right conditions often become the “wrong conditions” with no advance warning.

“She also told the court she could send and receive messages without taking her eyes off the road.”

Her eyes, perhaps, but her mind? Alas, not.

Posted on Friday, December 19th, 2008 at 8:03 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Spare the Tree, Cut Down the Litigation

A reader recently alerted me to yet another “trees and traffic” saga, this time in Sag Harbor, NY. Briefly, a 100-year-old black oak, beloved by neighborhood residents, was cut down after being struck by drivers in two separate incidents (one involving a rollover).

Now, it turns out the tree’s core had rotted, but what’s important here is that before this was even known, the ax was coming — because the tree, which had lasted virtually the entire history of automobile-dom, was viewed as a traffic hazard. Being generally of the mind that traffic is the hazard, I always view these claims with suspicion. This was a street marked for 25 mph. Assuming you were driving the proper speed and paying attention, how do you a.) strike something as large and obvious as a tree and b.) roll over your vehicle? (Any crash reconstructionists reading? I beg for elucidation). Trying to eliminate every potential physical hazard from the landscape to cater to some vision of crash-free driving forgets that the greatest source of risk comes from the driver himself.

Which is not to say nothing should have or could have been done; town officials claimed that a “bulb-out” or some other measure meant to wrap the road around the tree would cause the road to be too “narrow.” Too narrow according to some blanket set of prescriptions that take no heed of things like local character — and for what it’s worth, I’ve yet to see a road in the U.S. that could be described as “too narrow.” Narrow roads, moreover, are good for neighborhoods. The sad truth is the town was, perhaps rightly, more worried about litigation. And so yet another distinctive bit of the landscape was meant to be sacrificed to ensure the smooth flow of traffic, with greater safety — unless, that is, another driver weaves across the road into your path. Do you then eliminate the other lane of traffic?

The Sag Harbor Express had this to say:

“What unnerves us about this situation specifically is there appears to be a willingness on the village’s behalf to remove this tree not because it is dying, but because it appears to be a hazard due to its location in the roadway. We understand it is the village’s responsibility to protect its residents from facing untold amounts of liability as well as hazardous conditions, we are not convinced every avenue has been explored in this scenario.

We encourage the village to look at ways to keep this oak, if it is in fact a viable tree, through planning or engineering as is often done in communities committed to historic street trees that often, in their quirky way, stick out into roadways that were designed around them in the first place.

In a time where we are seeking to protect the character of our community with every tool we have, we would like to see the same initiative used on behalf of village officials in this case.

We do live in a litigious society, as Sag Harbor officials well know, dealing with a number of lawsuits over the last decade brought by people who did not have the foresight to watch their own step. We bemoan the fact that people across the country do not seem able to take responsibility for their own actions any more, rather placing the blame on someone else’s shoulders for their own errors. However, we would hate to see the village allow itself to be victimized by these very people and begin what we see as allowing that fear of litigation, in part, dictate what we deem worthy of protection.”

Posted on Friday, December 5th, 2008 at 9:00 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘Hands Free’ Is Not Brain Free

I’m slow to post on this, but I’ve finally gotten around to reading a new cell-phone driving study from the indefatigable David Strayer and colleagues from the University of Utah’s Applied Cognition Laboratory, via The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

With all the usual caveats (a small sample of student-aged drivers in a simulated driving environment), this study is of particular interest for addressing a question one often hears: How is talking on a phone while driving any different than talking to a passenger?

Among other things, test drivers were asked to exit a highway at a rest stop area under different conditions — while on the phone, while a passenger was present, etc. The researchers found that “drivers in the cell phone condition were four times more likely to fail task completion than drivers in the passenger condition.” (these were the socially sanctioned, but arguably no less distracting, ‘hands free’ phones, by the way).


They write: “On the strategic level of performance, cell phone drivers performed poorly at the navigation task. Two nonmutually exclusive explanations can be provided for this deficit: First, drivers conversing on a cell phone may experience problems with keeping the intention of exiting at the rest area in working memory, or second, drivers may not sufficiently process information from the driving environment (exit signs). Some support for the latter hypothesis comes from studies demonstrating inattention blindness in cell phone drivers (Strayer et al., 2003).”

What’s particularly interesting here is the way the conversation also changed with the cell-phone. Drivers made fewer references to traffic on the cell phone (because the person on the other end isn’t sharing the experience, or presumably interested in sharing it), and what’s more, actually started to speed up their conversation, even as it grew less multi-syllabic: “Also, quite surprisingly drivers conversing on the cell phone increased their production rate when talking on the cell phone, which is contrary to the predictions of the modulation hypothesis. More interesting, this happened even as those drivers in the passenger condition tended to reduce their production rate.”

The speech was getting simpler, in other words, even as it grew faster.

Drivers on cell phones, the author speculated, “may have attempted to dominate the conversation to avoid having to engage in speech comprehension, whereas with in-vehicle partners, it may be easier to relinquish control, given that the partner can be relied on to accommodate with his or her contributions.” (I’ve overheard quite a few cell-phone conversations where it seemed the caller was trying to dominate the conversation).

As study co-author Frank Drews told the Salt Lake City Tribune:

“It’s crazy. They talk faster. It’s quite counterproductive for driving safely,” Drews said. “There is an obviously malevolent influence.”

And, of course, it depends on who the passenger is: “For example a passenger who is too ‘supportive’ by constantly commenting and directing attention in an overcontrolling fashion has a potentially negative impact on performance.” (what I call the ‘Hyacinth Bucket syndrome’).

See the video here.

Posted on Thursday, December 4th, 2008 at 4:33 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
Comments Off on ‘Hands Free’ Is Not Brain Free. Click here to leave a comment.

Crosswalk Psychology

Cognitive Daily is running (until today) an interesting poll that shows a variety of situations with pedestrians in or near the crosswalks, and asks the user in which conditions they would be likely to stop. This picks up on a theme of a number of previous applied psychology experiments, which I described in the book, that reveal how we tend to comply with traffic laws rather situationally — rather than obeying them whole-cloth, in any condition (researchers have, for example, tested people who appeared to be blind, with a white cane, versus others, and found higher yielding rates; similar studies have been done with eye-contact, gender, among other variables).

Give it a try.

[p.s.: If that street is really marked for 45 mph, that’s really high for a residential area with pedestrians].

Posted on Thursday, December 4th, 2008 at 8:44 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
Comments Off on Crosswalk Psychology. Click here to leave a comment.


I really do feel for the police some days:

“Police in Santa Ana, Calif., say they were forced to use a stun gun on a naked male driver after he allegedly refused to put his hands up after a crash…

…Aguirre was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. Coleman offered no reason why the man was naked, but told the Register Aguirre’s movements were likely an attempt to locate his clothes.”

Posted on Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008 at 1:56 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
Comments Off on Stunning. Click here to leave a comment.
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



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