Traffic

Why We Drive the Way We Do (and what it says about us)

by Tom Vanderbilt

Audiobook read aloud by David Slavin

This book is crammed full of facts from studies on traffic patterns and driving behavior. How roads are engineered (mostly for our safety), why more caution signs don’t reduce accidents (people get used to them and ignore the message), what causes apparently conflicting phenomenon (such as the oft-repeated point that building more roads doesn’t relieve traffic, it just attracts more cars). I should have known that stoplights are controlled by computer systems and men in an office juggling the flow. I wouldn’t have guessed that roundabouts and winding roads actually are safer sometimes than intersections and straight shots- because they make you slow down and be more cautious. What I really found fascinating and eye-opening were the parts about how our brain perceives things when we drive. We simply can’t process what we’re seeing at the speeds we travel in cars- so do poorly at judging distances or how fast we’re actually going. There’s quite a few optical illusions involved on the road. Add to that the fact that you can’t communicate with other drivers beyond broad unclear gestures- is that guy honking at me or someone esle? why did that jerk cut me off!? and there’s lots of room for error. So roads, signage and all sorts of peripheral things you might not think are related, are carefully studied and built into the system to try and help us be safer drivers. Because we’re all pretty bad at it, turns out. Makes you afraid to get in a car again. But knowing some of the things I do know, I’ll remain pretty cautious (my kids think I drive real slow) and also try to be a more patient, forgiving driver towards conditions and others around me.

Kind of interesting that this book was published before GPS and smartphones were so common. One chapter talks about automated systems being invented for self-driving cars- what they were capable of, and where they fell short at the time. The author speculated how great it would be if a computer system could analyze traffic patterns and divert drivers to alternate routs to relieve congestion. Well, that’s a thing now- and does it help much? How many times have you been in a car, and the device suggests an alternate route, telling you how many minutes you’ll save. But if everyone jumps over to the alternate route, pretty soon that one becomes the traffic jam.

The only thing I didn’t like about this book, was part of the author’s tone. The constant jokes and references to pop culture things like movies, songs and famous people just don’t appeal to me at all. I also felt a bit put-off by the assumptions he made about what types of people typically do certain things. Didn’t really align with my personal experience. That said, I was willing to overlook the annoyances because the overall content was so interesting. (Side note: I like the second cover I pictured here, though it’s in another language).

This was my second audiobook experience. 6 hours listening time. In a way it feels like cheating, to strike books off my TBR list that have sat there for years, because I suddenly realized I can “read” more by listening to a voice narrate while doing something else! This one in just two days. I guess that makes it evident how much time I spend doing chores that don’t take much thought. I listened to this book while: washing dishes, folding laundry, sweeping floors, cleaning aquariums, taking down winter decorations (paper snowflakes hanging from the ceiling), and doing a puzzle.

The voice pretty soon becomes a tedious drone, but I got used to it (or turned it off when I couldn’t take anymore). It was amusingly eye-rolling how the reader would emphasize the word traffic every time it occurred in a sentence. (Exactly the same thing in the first audiobook I listened to, where the reader over-emphasize the phrase crashing through when it came up. As if I wouldn’t notice that was the title stuck into the narrative). I had far fewer issues this time with the CDs skipping. So as long as I get copies that aren’t too scratched up, I think this is worth continuing. Listening to audiobooks. Just nonfiction for now. I somehow think a stranger’s voice narrating fiction would grate on me more.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
416 pages, 2008

2 Responses

  1. Sounds like an interesting book even though it is of pre-GPS vintage. I don’t spend as much time on the road these days as in the past, and I think in a way that’s made me more observant and aware of what’s going on around me. Some of it is simply flabbergasting now that so many can’t put their phones down even when “guiding” a vehicle down the road at 70 miles an hour. Worse than drunk driving, in my estimation

    BTW, I’ve found that the reader makes all the difference in audiobook reading…I abandon quite a few of them because I can’t tolerate the reader’s voice.

    1. Yes. It seems like every year I see the aftermath of more and more accidents on the local highway here- we live close to it and use it, cross it daily. Especially guardrails where on/off ramps join the highway- so many of them crumpled from cars drifting out of the lane. I witnessed one- and the driver was on a cellphone.

      I knew the reader’s voice was going to be a big part of audiobooks hit-or-miss status for me. So far I haven’t found any completely intolerable- but only on my third now!

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