Archive for the ‘Traffic safety’ Category

China, India, and the Road Death-GDP Correlation

The New York Times notes:

India overtook China to top the world in road fatalities in 2006 and has continued to pull steadily ahead, despite a heavily agrarian population, fewer people than China and far fewer cars than many Western countries.

It goes on to cite a few reasons:

A lethal brew of poor road planning, inadequate law enforcement, a surge in trucks and cars, and a flood of untrained drivers have made India the world’s road death capital. As the country’s fast-growing economy and huge population raise its importance on the world stage, the rising toll is a reminder that the government still struggles to keep its more than a billion people safe.

In China, by contrast, which has undergone an auto boom of its own, official figures for road deaths have been falling for much of the past decade, to 73,500 in 2008, as new highways segregate cars from pedestrians, tractors and other slow-moving traffic, and the government cracks down on drunken driving and other violations.

As R.J. Smeed first noted, having fewer cars is by no means an indicator that one will have fewer traffic fatalities (and an important distinction in the developing world is that traffic fatality categories are topped by pedestrian deaths). But one thing that goes unmentioned in the piece is research, cited in Traffic, by Elizabeth Kopits and Maureen Cropper, that links a nation’s rate of traffic fatalities to its GDP. When GDP climbed from $1200 to $4400 in the countries studied, the fatality rate dropped by a factor of three.

According to the CIA Factbook, the 2009 estimated GDP of China was $6600, while in India it was $3100. Just by this measure alone, the discrepancy between the two countries could be predicted, if not fully explained (for there would be many other factors at play here, like culture, governmental structure, etc.). It’s not hard to imagine why higher GDP would lead to fewer deaths (in this regard it’s not properly correct to call traffic deaths, as is often done, a “disease of affluence”); as development levels increase, there’s not only more money for engineering, enforcement, etc., but also a reduced likelihood of corruption (roads are built to standards, police less willing to take bribes), accompanied by a greater societal emphasis in safety in all kinds of areas of life. But the real question is how India can close the huge fatality gap with China even if it can’t immediately narrow the GDP gap.

Posted on Wednesday, June 9th, 2010 at 7:52 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Speed Nudge

A Spanish company, Badennova, has developed what it calls an “intelligent speed bump,” which only acts as a speed bump if you’re going faster than the posted speed:

When vehicles traveling at the appropriate speed pass over the top, the intelligent speed bump provides no resistance and, as a consequence, does not cause any damage. For cars moving at excessive speed, however, the speed bump hardens and therefore provides the same resistance as any standard speed bump.

This behaviour is due to a non-Newtonian fluid which constitutes the filling material of the intelligent speed bump. These kinds of fluids behave differently than water. This means that their flow properties cannot be described by a single constant value of viscosity. There are different types of non-Newtonian fluids. The intelligent speed bump contains a so-called shear-thickening fluid (also known as dilatants).
Dilatants are suspensions whose viscosity increases with the rate of shear, i.e., the strain rate raises with the rate of shear. The dilation effect occurs when closely packed particles are combined with enough liquid to fill the gaps between them. At low velocities, the liquid acts as a lubricant, so the non-Newtonian liquid flows easily. At higher velocities, the liquid is unable to fill the gaps created between particles, and friction greatly increases, causing an increase in viscosity.

As a consequence, the non-Newtonian material allows the speed bump to change from a soft to a solid state according to the vehicle’s speed.

Posted on Wednesday, June 9th, 2010 at 7:15 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Accidental Journalist (an occasional series chronicling how predictable, preventable crashes are turned into accidents)

There’s an underlying tone of the passive voice (not to mention repeated use of the word “accident”) running through this Daily Beast dispatch Note the opening: “With summer driving season here, so is the deadliest part of the year on the road. The Daily Beast crunches the numbers to determine the 100 interstates most likely to generate a fatal wreck.”

You see, it’s the interstates that generate the crashes, not the actions of drivers. It’s also questionable whether it makes sense to focus on interstate highways, which per mile driven rank among the safest of roads traveled. A further problem is the lack of any exposure data — “fatal accidents” per mile is a rather meaningless statistic when we don’t know how many people drove those miles.

A bit further down: “Summertime, when America traditionally takes to the road, carries with it a more somber tradition—’the 100 deadliest days’ of the year for drivers.” It’s makes it sound as if there were something about the days themselves that were somehow dangerous, rather than the actions — e.g., the increased alcohol intake over the Fourth of July — that actually lie behind these fatalities.

Posted on Tuesday, June 8th, 2010 at 1:31 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Rational Safety or Driver Child-Proofing?

Reader Kent from New Zealand writes in with news of a new safety technology called “Raptor,” meant to sheathe road-side poles.

Many road deaths followed collisions with a tree or pole, James said, and tests had shown that a passenger compartment crush reduced from 500mm, when hitting an unwrapped pole, to 10mm when hitting a pole sheathed with a Raptor.

My first thought is: How soon until advertising is sold on those? Second thought is I have no problem with deploying those on high-speed roads, in which case there probably shouldn’t be poles or trees close to the road in the first place, but putting them up on lower speed roads, apart from being aesthetically unpleasant (I mean, really, do you want your town’s streets looking like the pit entrance at Talladega?), is just further child-proofing that will only encourage more bad behavior from drivers who should know better.

Trees tend to be uniformly defined as a hazard by road engineers, but another way of thinking about them is as a safety device: They protect pedestrians from wayward vehicles, and encourage slower speeds (lower speeds also reduce passenger compartment crush) by drivers. As always in these cases I refer to the work of Eric Dumbaugh:

Eric Dumbaugh, assistant professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at Texas A & M University, made a strong case that traffic engineers sometimes fail to understand the implications of their own accident data.

He presented some forceful statistics showing that while American rates of highway fatalities have fallen significantly over the past 30 years or so, they haven’t fallen as fast as the rates in other advanced countries. “We’ve fallen behind our first-world design peers.”

The problem is that American road builders’ model for a safe road is an Interstate highway – with limited access, wide lanes, and few turning options. The result is that engineers try to turn every road into an Interstate, with serious effects on aesthetics, and on safety too.

Dumbaugh argued that there is another model for a safe road, and that is the local street that is “dangerous by design.” Its hazards – curbside trees, for instance – are obvious. They force drivers to slow down, and that makes for greater safety.

He showed a slide of a stretch of road in Florida he had studied as part of a larger investigation of car crash sites. This particular stretch is lined by trees – the obstacle traffic engineers love to hate – on not just one but both sides. But it was clear from the picture that this is part of a real neighborhood – the kind of area where a driver instinctively slows down.

The road runs through the campus of Stetson University, an area with college students, dorms, and bars. And yet during the five year period his study covered, Dumbaugh said, there was not a single fatal crash there.

Posted on Tuesday, June 8th, 2010 at 8:29 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Watch for Fallen Rockpile

Several people (Carlton, Mikael) alerted me to this video, a more extreme entry in the “looked but did not see” category. The idea that a driver cannot see a massive pile of rock strewn across the world does not bode well for anything smaller.

Posted on Thursday, June 3rd, 2010 at 6:05 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Too We Tolerate Too Many Traffic Deaths?

Presumably with the Memorial Day weekend upon us (though I’ve cautioned against the “holiday traffic deaths story” before) The New York Times “Room for Debate” section has opened this question to a number of people, including myself. I won’t spoil the suspense, but you can read it here.

But that’s all I’ll say for now, as I’m about to (very safely) drive away for the weekend. Stay tuned on Tuesday, however, for the debut of “The Hive” project at Slate, to which I’ll be hoping you contribute.

Posted on Friday, May 28th, 2010 at 9:40 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Reader David sends in this reminder, via Failblog, that even the best systems cannot account for the behavior of every last driver.

Posted on Thursday, May 27th, 2010 at 9:32 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Crashes and Standard of Living

In an article from the New Scientist from 1972, I came across this interesting little note:

“In the US a recent survey demonstrated how serious can be the social consequences [of a serious injury from a road crash]: half of the severely injured in one year were forced permanently to lower their living standards.”

I don’t know what the survey was and the exact mechanism used in gauging living standards but the finding is striking; it also points to something that is often overlooked in road safety, which tends to emphasize fatalities — the consequences of non-fatal crashes.

Posted on Wednesday, May 26th, 2010 at 11:56 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Fallacy of Speed and Emergency Response

One of the oft-cited complaints about any sort of traffic calming treatment (speed bumps, narrowing streets, etc. etc.) is ‘what about emergency response?’ This has become something of a knee-jerk response, and it’s said with such seeming authority that it seems impolite, at the very least, to question it, even if it means we allow our local streets to become a source of daily unpleasantness and danger to accommodate what are statistically very rare needs (and there has been some good work on so-called “emergency response friendly” traffic calming).

After all, what individual, when questioned, wouldn’t intuitively want to be whisked to the hospital as fast as possible, or have fire crews sent racing to their house with minimal delay? I began thinking differently on this topic after meeting Nadine Levick at a traffic conference last fall. Over lunch, Nadine, a tireless crusader on a subject outside of most people’s purview, noted to me, according to one survey, riding in an ambulance, per mile, was one of the most dangerous things a person can do. And not simply because of, as you might imagine, clueless drivers not noticing an ambulance blazing through an intersection — but often because of unsafe actions by drivers themselves, as well as alarmingly substandard ambulance design (ambulances are not regulated by NHTSA for the crash protection of the occupants in the back; she’s got loads of horrific slides of the “boxes” having flown off the vehicle in a crash, and I’d urge you to otherwise delve into the site). The underlying sense I got from her was that of a sort of macho heroic undertone to emergency response, albeit shot through with the best of intentions, to get to or from the emergency with greatest possible haste — damn the consequences.

In any case, I thought of this again today thanks to an excellent article at Slate, by two medical personnel, that points out something that Levick was getting it: Despite the notion we may have that lives are at stake and a delay of a few minutes will be the crucial difference (isn’t it better for the speeding up to happen at the hospital end, or to work on better preventative and monitoring measures?), it turns out, as the authors note, “not to be backed up by good science’; and, what’s more, as they note, the risks taken in fast transport (to those outside the vehicle as well) may exceed whatever medical benefits are gained.

Posted on Wednesday, May 12th, 2010 at 2:09 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Volvo’s Auto-Braking System Fails; Human Error Blamed

Via Drive.

Posted on Wednesday, May 12th, 2010 at 9:54 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Girls Against Boys

Random fact of the day, via the WSJ:

State Farm, the nation’s largest insurance company, says that currently its auto coverage premiums for teenage boys are about 40% higher than for girls. In 1985, that gap was about 61%, says Vicki Harper, a spokeswoman for State Farm, which has more than 42 million auto policies. Most girls still get a break on premiums, she says, but “their premium rates reflect there isn’t as much of a difference as the rate for a teenage boy.”

Posted on Thursday, May 6th, 2010 at 8:40 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Risks of Distraction

If you’ve any lingering doubts about what can happen to a driver distracted by a phone (hands-free or hand-held, from the brain’s point of view it’s essentially the same), consider the recent case of a fatal plane/helicopter collision over the Hudson River in New York.

As noted by the Wall Street Journal:

The board’s data reinforce earlier indications that a distracted controller, engaged in a personal phone call while on duty and juggling various tasks, failed to keep proper track of the small, propeller-powered plane. The controller, Carlyle Turner, later told investigator he didn’t see or hear radar-system warnings about an impending collision, the documents indicate.

According to a transcript released Wednesday, Mr. Turner was on a personal call for about 2 1/2 minutes. Five seconds before impact, he hung up by telling the female friend on the call: “Let me straighten … stuff out.”

That five seconds number struck me, for I had just heard, at the Edmonton conference, from a human factors researcher mentioning a figure noted in one study that the time between the onset of conditions that needed response and the crash itself was in most cases five seconds or less (which intuitively makes sense).

But the main point is that here was a highly trained professional, engaged in a personal call, which subsequently caused him to miss something that should have been on his radar, as it were — particularly as alarms were sounded. It’s likely his eyes were even on the vessels in question, as he realized, too late, however (owing to divided attention), he had to “straighten stuff out.” Now extrapolate that to the less highly trained drivers on the (more crowded) road, brimming with overconfidence, and you begin to see the problem. And yes, there were other factors behind the crash — failure to observe protocol by at least one pilot, lack of prescriptive glasses by another controller — but this is the point in implementing redundant safety systems: An error can be observed by someone else and corrected, the same way a non-distracted driver can (sometimes) compensate for a distracted driver.

Posted on Thursday, April 29th, 2010 at 2:37 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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2 Easy to Get, 2 Hard to Lose

I never really had a mantra for the Traffic book, the way Michael Pollan does: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

I tried to think: Drive safer, not so much, mostly walk (ok, that’s for New Yorkers). But you get the picture.

I noticed a few people responded to an offhand comment I made in the Streetfilms interview: “It’s too easy to get a license in this country, too hard to lose one.”

By this I mean our driver’s education and licensing system is in need of a number of reforms — we treat driving like a right, as in voting — and the newspapers (and courts) are filled with recidivist drivers. Read a random article about a fatal crash, and I’ll be you, that by about the sixth or seventh paragraph, you’ll begin to see examples of previous incidents or some underlying pattern of behavior that seriously undermines the “accidental” nature of any crash (e.g., the driver in the Taconic minivan crash). And yes, I am aware that many people with suspended licenses simply drive without a license, and yes, we need to look in many cases at the behavioral questions, yadda, yadda, yadda, but why we should continue to legally pander to people with a reckless disregard for human life is beyond me.

I was thinking of this again while watching, in Edmonton, a poignant talk by Melissa Wandall, whose husband was killed by a (repeat) red-light runner (the red-light law she’s worked for has just cleared the Florida senate; and despite what you often hear from the fringes of the right, most people, when polled, actually support such devices, when used judiciously). The offending driver already had 10 points on her license, a number of which kept getting bumped down by visits to traffic schools (the efficacy of which has been seriously called into question by several studies). Shockingly, she’s back on the road today.

Let’s go back to John Stuart Mill: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

It’s that ‘civilized’ bit I sometimes wonder about these days.

Posted on Thursday, April 29th, 2010 at 7:56 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Dead Man Driving

The current Men’s Health has an excellent piece by Oliver Broudy (disclosure: I’m quoted), “Dead Man Driving,” that unpacks the anatomy of a fatal crash, from causes to consequences, in chilling detail.

It’s as if LaBar’s car has been dropped from a height of 54 feet. The crush easily exceeds 20 inches. There are three big impacts in any crash, says Stitzel. “The vehicle hits the other vehicle; the occupant loads the restraint system; and then the occupant’s internal organs load the inner chest wall or the inside of the skull.”

It’s this third impact that we tend to forget about. The human body, says Stitzel, did not evolve to cope with impacts of this order. If it did, our chest cavity–instead of a big open space packed with soft tissue–would be braced with internal restraints. Lacking such restraints, there’s nothing to prevent your aorta, for instance, from rupturing when you stop too quickly. At that point–even if you’re otherwise free of visible injury–you’re dead.

Your skull, by the same token, is basically a big yogurt container. The brain’s only other crash restraints are the delicate internal structures that allow it to function.

Posted on Monday, April 19th, 2010 at 11:19 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Safety Mirage

Via Brownstoner, I couldn’t help be horrified by the above aesthetic outrage, which seems like some sinister prelude to paving with asphalt (or else the paint fumes are getting to the crew). But I was struck by the comments: People really do seem to sincerely believe that there is a need for yellow dividing lines on presumably low-speed (particularly since they’re Belgian-blocked) streets, as if the mere fact that they were there was proof enough of their rationale and safety.

It’s amazing how our instinct fools us here. But, sorry folks, per your comments, yellow dividing lines aren’t going to keep your children safe, aren’t going to prevent crashes, aren’t going to magically keep drivers from swerving over into the other lane — the only effect that they’re going to have on driver behavior is to increase their speed (and hence raise danger for everyone) and even narrow their passing distance, as they grow confident in the delineation of their space. Dividing lines have absolutely no place on narrow, slow-moving, pedestrian-crowded urban streets. Save it for the highway.

Posted on Friday, April 16th, 2010 at 7:04 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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How Can You Miss a Six-Foot Rabbit?

When it’s a pedestrian in California.

The report is here, via The Invisible Gorilla, the new blog for the new book by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.

A “dangerous stunt” indeed; almost as dangerous as actually crossing the road! Though I dare say this has less to do with inattentional blindness than the typical failure — due to lack of interest or legal understanding — of drivers to yield to pedestrians. Though per the “safety in numbers” effect, it might help if the rabbit were joined by many other giant rabbits, in which case we’d probably have other things to worry about than crosswalk compliance.

Posted on Tuesday, April 13th, 2010 at 11:40 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Helmeting Up in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh

On the further subject of developing world traffic safety, Greig Craft of the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation writes to tell me of an extension to the motorcycle helmet law in Vietnam:

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has signed today an amendment to Resolution 32, the mandatory helmet law passed in December 2007. All drivers and passengers on motorbikes from the age of six must wear a helmet properly under penalty of a fine from 20 May 2010. Adults carrying children without a helmet or without it properly buckled will be fined 100,000 – 200,000 VND – the equivalent of five to ten US dollars. Those driving in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi will suffer higher penalties than in the rest of the country.

The amendment includes several other road safety measures: increased fines for carrying more than one passenger over the age of fourteen; triple to quadruple the original fine for running red lights; double the original fine for driving the wrong way down a one-way street; and up to a 1.4 million VND, or approximately 75 US dollars, fine for drink driving.

Officials will monitor the increased penalty system in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi for 36 months in a pilot project, after which time officials may chose to extend the same fines to the rest of the country.

The extension of the penalties for non-helmet use in Resolution 32 to include children marks the achievement of years of advocacy from many road safety stakeholders in Vietnam. AIP Foundation will encourage helmet use for all ages, and supports the amendment as a milestone for the Vietnamese government in road safety.

Good policy, for sure, though as the photo above indicates, children below 6 are still an issue — yes, that’s a baby she’s carrying. And let’s hope children around age 6 are only passengers, and not drivers.

Posted on Thursday, April 8th, 2010 at 9:31 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Edge Effects and Driving Behavior

An interesting study in the March Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, ”
Electronic records of undesirable driving events,” by Oren Musicant, Hillel Bar-Geraa, and Edna Schechtman, used real-time driving event recorders to study 117,195 trips made by 109 drivers. One curious finding was a sort of ‘edge effect’ — there were more aggressive events recorded at the beginnings and ends of journeys.

We observed meaningful differences between trip edges and middle trip events frequencies. This unexpected phenomenon was found to be repeated for trips with different characteristics of duration, time of day, day of the week and for males and females. One possible explanation can be related to non-defensive driving in familiar places (Rosenbloom, Perlman, & Shahar, 2007) “near home,” which probably affects EF (event frequency) and real safety in a similar manner. Another possible explanation is that the first and last couple of driving minutes are more likely to be in urban areas, therefore having more potential for executing undesired driving events as sharp turning and braking (traffic signals). The correlation between EF and safety (accidents) may be different in urban and non-urban environments.

I’d speculate some combination thereof — and this doesn’t bode well for the idea that people would drive more carefully in their own neighborhoods.

Posted on Tuesday, April 6th, 2010 at 9:05 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Yielding on Yield

In New Jersey, you now have to come to a complete stop, rather than simply “yield,” when pedestrians are in the crosswalk.


New Jersey has one of the highest rates of pedestrian fatalities in the country, with 27 percent of auto fatalities in 2008 involving pedestrians, almost twice the national rate, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Must be all those jaywalking pedestrians, no? Not quite. Rather drivers, and this will surprise no readers of this blog, seemed to show a shocking disregard — or complete lack of knowledge — of the actual law.

Last year, Cherry Hill police set up crosswalk stings, in which officers, in some cases pushing baby strollers, would step out into a crosswalk as cars approached. Over six days, officers handed out 249 tickets and arrested one man who became irate when cited by police, Rann said.

“People would just drive right around the carriage,” he said. “It’s a matter of handing out more tickets. It gets the word out, and people start to comply.”

Another dispatch notes:

A potentially controversial part of the law says that if a driver hits a pedestrian in a crosswalk, the presumption of fault lies with the driver for not taking “due care” for the safety of the pedestrian.

What’s controversial to my mind in this case is presuming fault on anyone but the driver.

Posted on Monday, April 5th, 2010 at 5:07 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Honks and Consciousness

Via Nudge, a fascinating article about trying to prevent railway crossing deaths (by pedestrians) using a variety of behavioral cues intended to counter perceptual biases and guide decision-making:

From all this research, Shroff identified three major decision-making principles in operation on the Wadala tracks. “One is a combination of the Leibowitz Hypothesis and the Looming Effect. Large objects appear to move slower than small objects, and people can’t judge their speed,” she says. “Another is the Cocktail Party Effect: The brain isn’t wired to follow two conversations, or do two activities simultaneously. If there are two trains on adjacent tracks, you’ll register one, but not the other.” The third is simply a flight response—a tendency to run, which minimizes good judgement.

To each of these principles, Final Mile tailored a specific “intervention”. A few hundred metres from the Wadala station, Krishnamurthy points to sequences of railway sleepers painted a bright yellow. “That helps your brain get a better idea of distances and how fast a train is covering them, which helps you judge its speed,” he says.

Shortly thereafter, a gaggle of schoolchildren, absorbed in conversation, crosses the tracks, prime material for the Cocktail Party Effect. “So we installed whistle boards just around the bend, telling the motormen to honk,” Krishnamurthy says. Even the honk is carefully calibrated: Two short, rapid honks instead of one long one, because that intrudes into a listener’s consciousness much more effectively.

The first few whistle signs that Final Mile put up—regulation boards made of metal— were promptly stolen. “So we had to create a signboard out of something not worth stealing,” Krishnamurthy laughs. “We had to do an intervention on the intervention!”

At the station itself, Krishnamurthy points to the final intervention—a three-panel photo of a rather alarmed man being gradually run over by a locomotive. This morbid frieze is positioned exactly at the two points where the temptation to cross is powerful, designed to subtly counter the flight response.
“It’s intended to elicit an appropriate emotional memory,” Krishnamurthy says. “We look to faces to figure out situations, so his face is central. We repeated the image, because it catches the eye. And it has to be life-size, not larger than life, because it shouldn’t intrude into the conscious. It should work at an unconscious level.”

Posted on Thursday, March 25th, 2010 at 7:36 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.

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