Archive for March 31st, 2009

The Law, It’s a Funny Thing

Following up on a story I mentioned a while back, a driver in DeKalb County, Georgia, who struck and killed a child at a crosswalk in front of a school, despite a crossing guard and a line of stopped cars, has been charged with “misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.” My first question is: Do the words misdemeanor and manslaughter appear anywhere else together save the curious field of traffic law?

The second is a bit from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution story:

“Misdemeanors can be punished by up to one year in jail. State law makes vehicular homicide a misdemeanor except in certain cases such as drunken driving or ignoring a stop sign on a stopped school bus.”

Well, first, if a driver claims to not see the stop sign on a stopped school bus, is that the same as ignoring it? Second, is there any reason for a driver to less cautious at a cross-walk in front of a school than around a school-bus dispensing children? If the law makes legal protections for children being dropped off from a bus, why wouldn’t it do the same when they are in a protected crosswalk, under the care of a crossing guard?

(Thanks Lucas)

Posted on Tuesday, March 31st, 2009 at 6:58 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Future Eventually Arrives

Traffic gets up a great write-up over at Popular Mechanics, via Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds. Here’s an excerpt:

The safety-through-danger approach extends to cars. Modern cars are quiet, powerful and capable of astonishing grip in curves, even on wet pavement. That’s swell, of course, until you suddenly lose traction at 75 mph. The sense of confidence bred by all this capability makes us feel safe, which causes us to drive faster than we probably should. We don’t want to make cars with poor response, but perhaps we could design cues—steering-wheel vibration devices, as in video games?—that make us feel less safe at speed and encourage more care. Designers could make cars feel faster at lower speeds, instead of slower at higher speeds. Done right, this might even make driving more fun. In college I drove an Austin-Healey 3000 that somehow felt faster at 45 mph than my Mazda RX-8 (or even my Toyota Highlander Hybrid) feels at 75 mph. That was a good thing.

This approach could be taken beyond the world of personal transportation. We’re in the current financial mess in part because things that were actually dangerous—from subprime mortgages to risky financial instruments that no one fully understood—felt safe and ordinary. Modern financial markets, with computers, regulations, deposit insurance and bond ratings, felt as routine and as smooth as that four-lane highway in Spain, causing a lot of people who should have been paying attention to doze off. Investors might have been more careful if it had felt like they were driving down a twisty mountain road with no guardrails, especially since we really were engaged in the financial equivalent of high-speed mountain driving, only without the discipline of fear.

In athletics, protection sometimes leads to more risk-taking. Research has shown that skiers who wear helmets ski faster than those who do not. Likewise, firearms instructors are quick to stress that the safety on a gun doesn’t actually render the weapon safe, just marginally safer, so that all usual precautions still apply. And I noticed when scuba diving with a spare air cylinder that instructors were concerned these backups would become popular with inexperienced divers and that this reliance might breed carelessness with the main equipment.

The traffic example demonstrates a general phenomenon of modern society: With the best of intentions, we tend to replace situations that call on the use of our wits with situations that we can sleepwalk through, and the solutions to matters with any serious consequences are postponed to the indefinite future. That’s a comfortable way to live, and there are good reasons to be glad of it—we’re not in a situation where one bad harvest means starvation, after all—but if you can postpone problems indefinitely, a lot of problems will be postponed. Yet the future eventually arrives.

Posted on Tuesday, March 31st, 2009 at 6:46 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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While We’re on the Subject of VW and Safety

Jessica Zafra raises a salient question about VW’s Phaeton, whose name is derived from the figure in Greek mythology who, in a quest to confirm that sun-god Helios is his father (as mother Euripides has confessed), takes Dad’s sun chariot out for a spectacularly ill-fated ride. As she asks: “Is it a good idea to buy a car named after a terrible driver who died in a spectacular crash?”

Perhaps consumers were hip to this — VW no longer makes the car, after all.

(Via Peter Stothard)

Posted on Tuesday, March 31st, 2009 at 6:37 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Safety Overhead

I was struck by the arresting difference in these two photos, from the IIHS’ recent tests on roof strength for small SUVs. The first, the Volkswagen Tiguan, looks like as if it didn’t go through the test. The second, the Kia Sportage, looks like a safe was dropped on it from ten stories up.

The Kia spokesman, who undoubtedly has some explaining to do, noted that the IIHS rating, “by itself, does not provide a complete assessment of a vehicle’s ability to protect occupants in these complex events.”

Well, this actually makes me feel even more leery; the IIHS performs one simple test — in reality, in a complex real-world event, there’s that many more ways for the roof to collapse, or for something else to go wrong.

Given the cost discrepancy between the VW and the Kia, this brings up an unfortunate reality of the car business — safety features cost money. I am reminded of a slide (pictured below) of a presentation by Tom Wenzel, which shows how car resale value is associated with risk. Of course, we can’t chalk this up entirely to “vehicle factors,” as we need to know who’s driving each kind of vehicle, how much and where they’re driving, etc. etc.

This distinction is not generally made in the media; as one will see articles like “the ten safest cars on the road.” But those are drawn from crash tests, not real-world insurance claims and fatality/injury figures. Perhaps “theoretically safest cars” is better. Wenzel’s presentations also do a great job of showing the complexity of car safety — e.g., that there’s more to it than sheer mass (there’s a weak relationship between weight and car safety, he notes, unless one accounts for the manufacturer; in other words, the quality of vehicle design seems more important than sheer size).

Posted on Tuesday, March 31st, 2009 at 6:05 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
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau:

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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



March 2009

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