Shut Up and Drive 

Operating a moving vehicle is a lot more complicated than it seems

Operating a moving vehicle is a lot more complicated than it seems

For most people, driving a car is as automatic as brushing our teeth. But like much of the taken-for-granted world, commanding an automobile requires a staggering level of sensory-motor and analytical skill. In Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (Knopf, 402 pp., $24.95), Tom Vanderbilt shows how this complex web of activity has implications for human behavior behind the wheel and beyond.

According to Vanderbilt, it's not just the objects in your mirror that are closer than they appear. As we gaze through the windshield, we're bombarded with overlapping streams of bad information, misperceptions and catch-22s that, when examined closely, make the fact that we can drive at all seem something of a miracle.

Take the simple act of merging at a construction site. Do you ease into the slow moving open lane at the earliest opportunity or wait until the last minute and nose in? Decorum and common sense hold that the former, called "early merging," is the safest thing to do. But studies show that it's actually the other way around. Traffic flow is improved when drivers in both lanes take turns merging at a pre-ordained taper point, which is announced well in advance of the construction zone. This "late merging" has the added advantage of reducing road rage because egos and insecurities are removed from the equation.

Traffic is full of situations like this, in which infrastructure and driving skill collide with optical illusion and emotion. At such times, things aren't always as they seem—a significant issue, given that driving is one of the riskier things people do. As Vanderbilt says, "The road, more than simply a system of regulations and designs, is a place where many millions of us, with only loose parameters for how to behave, are thrown together daily in a kind of massive petri dish in which all kinds of uncharted, little understood dynamics are at work."

In substance, Traffic is an academic book. Vanderbilt's research is breathtakingly thorough; his sources include a range of experts from traffic controllers to laymen drivers. Stylistically, though, the book is readable and often very humorous. Each section of Traffic begins with a whimsical quote, such as the following from Albert Einstein: "Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves."

The world of human activity is infinitely complicated, though you wouldn't know it from the recent presidential debates. Charges of elitism face any candidate daring enough to advance a sophisticated argument, and the voting public seems to have little patience for in-depth analysis. That's why Traffic is important. By demonstrating the complexity of something as routine as the morning commute, Vanderbilt reminds us that issues like terrorism, abortion and global finance are far more intricate than simple sound bites makes them appear.


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