August 2008

Tom Vanderbilt

Drive time: our lives behind the wheel
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Journalist Tom Vanderbilt has made a career out of writing about topics from the mundane to the obscure, including sneakers, Quonset huts and nuclear fallout shelters. His writing is distinguished by its attention to detail, with exhaustive research used to explore every nuance of a given subject.

Vanderbilt does just that in latest book, Traffic, an eye-opening and entertaining journey into the experiences of driving. The book examines virtually every aspect of driving, from why traffic jams form to why the other lane always seems to be moving faster. BookPage asked Vanderbilt (who drives a 2001 Volvo V40) to serve as a tour guide in negotiating the challenges we face on the road – and in the parking lot.

What motivated you to write Traffic?

I've always been an "early merger" at places like highway work zones where you're forced to merge from two lanes of traffic into one. On one occasion, I became frustrated in a long queue as vehicles kept passing me in the "closing" lane. I jumped to the head of the queue and "late merged." I felt guilty about it, but as I began to study the literature, I found that if the system were set up the right way, more traffic would flow through the bottleneck if everyone did not get over sooner. What I had thought my whole driving life was the right thing to do was in fact wrong. That made me wonder what else I had misunderstood about this curious everyday environment.

Why do drivers take on different personalities when they get behind the wheel?

In traffic, we are largely anonymous, secure in our own enclosures, and there is little actual human contact or immediate consequence for our actions – at least until that guy with the gun rack on the pickup truck you gave the finger to pulls up alongside you at the traffic light! All of these factors lead us to behave in ways we might not otherwise. An interesting comparison is the Internet, whether it's "cyber-bullying" or flaming someone in a chat room. It's been called the "online disinhibition effect." Whether we are corrupted by the medium or expressing our true selves is another question altogether.

Why is it that drivers should take the first spot they see in a parking lot instead of circling for the best spot?

A couple of interesting studies have found that people who search for the "best" spot, i.e., the closest to the entrance of the building, often end up spending more time searching for a spot than it would have cost them to simply grab the first one they saw and walk; or sometimes, what people thought was the best spot was actually further away than a spot a few rows away from the entrance (but closer to the beginning of the row). This is a great example of how "heuristics" – our little rules of thumb that guide our decision-making – often trick us into not making the best decision.

What is distinctive about the way Americans drive?

We certainly drive more than anyone else in the world. No other country has as many SUVs or light trucks in its vehicle fleet. I've also not seen another place so disposed to putting bumper stickers on cars. There's another thing I've noticed in driving culture here that perhaps seems American: We all feel as if we have rights, but we also don't want our rights to be violated. Sometimes these bump up against each other in traffic; for example, some people feel they have the right to speed, some people feel they have the right to go the speed limit, and not be tailgated by someone behind. We say the left lane is for "faster traffic," but faster than what? To quote the late George Carlin, "Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?"


How do you think rising gas prices will change American driving habits?

As we're already seeing, people will drive less – cutting out so-called "discretionary" driving, switching to cycling or public transport for more trips. We'll also drive smaller cars – and better smaller cars, mind you, than those econo-boxes from the early 1970s. It might also cause people to "drive smarter" – not accelerating as quickly from a stop, trying to avoid stopping and starting all the time by timing traffic flow better, and just driving slower in general. Fuel consumption is nonlinear: it costs more to go faster, even after accounting for time savings, and the percentage increase rises with speed.

Americans are in love with drive-through restaurants. Do you have a favorite drive-through order?

That's easy. The "Double Double" with fries and a Coke at In-and-Out Burger, which sadly doesn't exist in New York. But please, park before you eat – and shut off the engine!

John T. Slania is a journalism professor at Loyola University in Chicago.

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By Tom Vanderbilt
ISBN 9780307264787

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