Narcissists at the wheel: A new book points out many reasons people get into traffic accidents
Charles Enman, Canwest News Service Published: Thursday, September 04, 2008
The banes of our existence are many -- illness, taxes, rude people, aging, insistent distractions of passion . . . and surely, for most people, the annoyances of having to handle traffic.
Traffic problems have been perennially with us, as Tom Vanderbilt tells us in his just-released book Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us).
In ancient Rome, Caesar, faced with too many chariots on the roads, had to ban chariots and carts from the city during daytime, "except," as his declaration specified, "to transport construction materials for the temples of the gods or for other great public works or to take away demolition materials."
Three years ago, Vanderbilt was having a white-knuckle drive on a New Jersey highway when a sign loomed: "LANE ENDS ONE MILE. MERGE RIGHT."
Vanderbilt's instinct was the good little boy's one -- to begin to look for an opening on the right and move over immediately. But part of him was saying: "Don't be a sucker. You can do better."
So he held off merging until the last moment.
He didn't achieve this without feeling guilt. And so he decided to look scientifically into the intricacies of traffic merging. What he found was confirmation that he'd done the right thing: Late mergers help fully utilize both lanes of traffic and thereby increase the efficiency of moving cars past a point of obstruction.
What he also found was the subject of the book, which took him to cities around the world and to the experts that have made traffic a life study.
"My aim," he tells us, "was to learn to read between the dotted lines on the highway, sift through the strange patterns that traffic contains, interpret the small feints, dodges, parries, and thrusts between vehicles. I would study not only the traffic signals we obey but also the traffic signals we send."
He spent a good deal of time looking at the emotional factors in bad driving, especially road rage.
We're social animals and we spend a lot of time looking directly at each other as we speak. In traffic, all this communication, this opportunity to signal what we want and how we feel, is lost. If a driver cuts us off, we usually assume some malign motive -- and we have no way to check our assumption against the other driver's explanation.
What we can do, sitting alone in our vehicles, is act out a drama of vindication. As sociologist Jack Katz told Vanderbilt, "The angry driver becomes a magician taken in by his own magic," who creates a "new meaning" for the high-speed encounter, often consigning the offending driver to a list of villains (women, teenagers, nuts on cellphones) who shouldn't be on the road.
If there was any kind of good explanation for the other driver's action, we will never know it, and if our own actions contributed to the other driver's apparent transgression, we are too blinded by our anger to see it.
Anger seems one way of asserting our identity when the usual markers of identity are lost. Sitting in our cars, we are nothing more than a brand of vehicle and a licence plate number. (Vanderbilt, whose observations often bring out the aha! response, points out that we feel a "curious joy" when we see someone else driving our brand of car, or a licence plate from one's home state or province.)
We would probably all drive better if we didn't assume that our skills were better than they are. In study after study, a majority of drivers who are asked to compare themselves to the "average driver" report that they are better -- an obvious statistical impossibility.
Vanderbilt says this narcissism seems to be a major factor in aggressive driving. But drivers all seem to report seeing more aggressive driving than doing it themselves, another sign of narcissism's blinkering effect. And narcissism, as a number of psychological studies have shown, is on the rise in modern society.
The effect on driving levels is pernicious. As Vanderbilt notes, "Traffic, a system that requires conformity and co-operation to function best, is filling with people sharing a common thought: 'If I ruled the road, it would be a better place.'"
If we want to know how good we are as drivers, one way would be to look at the number of accidents we have -- and those are countable. But the real indicator would be the vastly more numerous near-misses we have on the road -- and these are quickly forgotten and impossible to quantify.
"Drivers think of their own performance in terms of crashes and traffic tickets," Vanderbilt notes. "People riding along with a driver look at it differently." They see the sudden braking, the ignored stop signs, the lane changes that nearly clip an adjacent car's fender.
Drivers really have no accurate feedback loop on how they're doing.
Vanderbilt looked at videos made by DriveCam, small cameras located around the rearview mirror that give an ongoing account of how people really drive. What he saw was "footage of crashes, near-crashes, and spectacularly careless acts of driving."
Some of the behaviour was simply careless, like a man who took his hands off the steering wheel to punch at a speed bag hanging from the rearview mirror. But in many other cases, drivers were nearly falling asleep. He was told of one driver of a gas-filled tanker truck falling asleep for eight full seconds. He witnessed, on video, a male driver spending nine seconds dialing his cellphone as his van nearly drifts off the road, not far from a child on a bicycle.
Part of the reason we don't pay enough attention to our driving is that driving is an "overlearned" activity, something so well-mastered that we hardly need to give it conscious thought. But the risk is that driving becomes so automatic that we stop paying attention. In the largest study of driving yet done, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute equipped 100 cars with monitoring devices to record a year's worth of driving. In 80 per cent of crashes and 65 per cent of near-crashes, they found drivers had not been paying attention for up to three seconds before the accident.
Distractions behind the steering wheel are constant. Studies show that the average driver adjusts the radio 7.4 times per hour, attends to an infant 8.1 times per hour, and searches for sunglasses or breath mints or whatever else 10.8 times per hour.
Dialing a cellphone while driving is very dangerous. Actually speaking on one is less so, but the dialing is a brief task, while the conversation may be extended. Both risks are roughly equal.
The point to remember is that, our illusions aside, we are not that good at multi-tasking.
"Human attention, in the best of circumstances, is a fluid but fragile entity," Vanderbilt notes. "Beyond a certain threshold, the more that is asked of it, the less well it performs. When this happens in a psychological experiment, it is interesting. When it happens in traffic, it can be fatal."
A conundrum of traffic studies is that often the more dangerous road seems safer than the well-designed road. The reason is simply that we become more alert and cautious when we know that we are in a situation of enhanced risk.
Vanderbilt gives many examples.
Any foreigner who has driven the roundabout surrounding the Arc de Triomphe in Paris will have given a silent prayer of thanks after emerging unscathed, as virtually all drivers do. But every driver in that swirl of vehicles knows he has to have intense focus on what he's doing.
One study showed that converting standard four-way light-controlled intersections to roundabouts reduced accidents by 40 per cent, injuries by 76 per cent, and fatalities by 90 per cent. Counterintuitive, but true.
Vanderbilt has special affection for the late Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman. A radical, Monderman believed that most road signage was pointless and distracting. In the mid-1980s, Monderman redesigned the main street of a village called Oudehaske, where villagers were complaining about speeding traffic. Instead of installing speed bumps, Monderman suggested the road be made more "villagelike." Where the road had previously been clearly separated for use by cars, bicycles and pedestrians, Monderman created the illusion that all three shared the same road space. The curb was lowered so that the street space seemed open to pedestrians, the pavement was replaced with small paving blocks that enhanced the villagelike feel, and bicycles had full use of the road.
Monderman's redesign created a sense of complexity. Drivers were now forced to interact with other users of the road, to negotiate. And the result, without the use of road signs, was a drastic drop in traffic speed, so low that radar guns, which measure speeds only as low as 30 kilometres an hour, could not get a speed reading.
When countries are compared in terms of accident rates, it often seems that GDP is an important factor. The higher the GDP, in general, the safer the roads. Norway, ranked third-highest in GDP by the IMF in 2005, was among the three safest countries in which to drive. Uganda, ranked 154th in GDP, had one of the world's highest traffic fatality rates. The roads are of lower quality, medical services are poorer, and the vehicles are less safe.
Vanderbilt also debunks a few myths:
-- Truck drivers do not cause many accidents; when they have a collision with a passenger car, the car's driver has sole responsibility 70 per cent of the time.
-- Passing other vehicles is not a major contributor to traffic fatalities. Only five per cent of accidents involve cars going in the same direction.
-- Pickup trucks are not safe vehicles in which to have an accident. In the United States, pickups have a higher rate of fatal accidents than any other vehicle. The Ford F-350 has nearly seven times the risk as the Dodge Caravan, a minivan.
-- Antilock braking systems don't seem to reduce accidents, possibly because drivers, counting on a reduction in risk, drive more intensely.
We seem curiously unmoved by traffic fatalities, Vanderbilt points out. More people are killed on American roads each month than died in the terrorist atrocities of 9/11. There is an obvious imbalance to address, yet authorities have sometimes taken traffic police off the road and assigned them to the fight against terrorism.
Vanderbilt's book is filled with a mind-numbing range of studies and conversations with experts (the book has 91 pages of notes).
One might wonder what makes a safe driver.
Vanderbilt doesn't give a simple answer in the book -- but in the interviews since the book started its climb up the best-seller lists, he has.
It's simple, he says. Obey the traffic rules.
Traffic: Things You Didn't Know
. Death, taxes and commute times: Though cities have gotten far more spread out, the commute time hasn't changed that much, remaining roughly 30 minutes for most people. In Berlin of 1800, people walked in what was then a much smaller city; then horse trams came, then electric trams, then the subway, then the car; but city growth was roughly proportional to the increase in the speed of transport, keeping the commute time the same.
. Time is money: By one estimate, time wasted in traffic cost the U.S. economy $108 billion in 2000. That's hard to verify, though. No one knows if the time gained by more efficient traffic flow would be put to good use, for one thing; and it doesn't take account of financial benefits of the road system.
. Speed does kill: The most important risk factor in a car crash is speed. In a crash at 50 miles an hour (80 km/h), you are 15 times more likely to die than in a crash at 25 miles an hour (40 km/h). A crash at 35 miles an hour (56 km/h) causes a third more frontal damage than one at 30 miles an hour (48 km/h).
. Still, don't try it: Though this is not a recommendation for drinking, people who are used to drinking have fewer crashes at any blood-alcohol level than their teetotalling cohorts -- even, and here's the rub, at a blood-alcohol level of zero.
. Men vs. women: Women have more nonfatal crashes than men, but men have a much greater rate of fatal crashes. According to one study, men die at the rate of 1.3 deaths per 100 million miles driven; the rate for women is 0.73. Men are twice as likely to be involved in an alcohol-related fatal crash, and even without alcohol, are more likely to drive aggressively.
. Precious cargo: Passengers seem to save lives. Drivers are more careful when there is a passenger in the vehicle (though this is not true for teenagers, who are more likely to be drinking and driving aggressively).
. Reckless is as reckless does: It's only sensible that not wearing a seatbelt leaves one more susceptible to serious injury. Less obvious is that drivers who refuse to wear a seatbelt have more severe accidents. The same lack of caution that leaves the seatbelt unused also accounts for a greater tendency to drive recklessly.
. Meals on Wheels: Eating in the car, one of the great distractions while driving, is becoming ever more common. In 2003, there were an estimated 73.2 billion "on-the-go eating occasions" in the United States and Europe combined; this year, there will be an estimated 84.4 billion. In 2001, there were 134 food products, like Yoplait's Go-Gurt, that featured the word "go" in their name; by 2004, there were 504.
. The truth about the ' trucker tan': Drivers are behind the wheel so much in the United States that they have higher rates of skin cancer on their left sides.
. Gridlock goes global: Traffic has taken over the world. Lhasa, the once-sleepy capital of Tibet, now has traffic jams. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, there are more than 300 helipads for the helicopters that shuttle the traffic-averse wealthy around. In Jakarta, Indonesia, some men work as "car jockeys," passengers who are paid simply to sit in the car, helping the driver meet the passenger quota for the faster car-pool lanes. In China, the number of people killed each year is greater than the number of vehicles the country made as recently as 1970.
. Reckless is as reckless does, Part II: Car insurance premiums are tied to credit scores, on the assumption that risky behaviour with credit has a correlation with taking risks behind the wheel.
. Make the world go away: Everyone knows the commute to work can be too long, but surveys show that a commute can also be too short. Most people want to be in their car for at least 20 minutes, solitary "me time" to be alone with themselves.
. Drawn to the flame: So many drivers run into roadside emergency vehicles that have all their lights flashing that the phenomenon has a name -- the "moth effect." Theories as to why include an instinctive tendency to stare fixedly at lights, and a tendency to assume that vehicles aligned with the direction of traffic flow are actually moving.
. That Hummer high: It's well-known that SUVs and pickups are more apt to roll over than other vehicles, but the driver's height off the ground presents another danger -- that the driver is more apt to speed unconsciously. Being further from the ground, he gets less sense of "optical flow," the visual impression of objects rushing past.
-- from Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), by Tom Vanderbilt
Times Colonist 2008
Saanich police check for speeders, many who likely believe they are better drivers than their skills warrant
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Thread: Why We Drive The Way We Do
09-04-2008, 03:01 PM #1
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Why We Drive The Way We Do
Last edited by MalahatTwo7; 09-04-2008 at 03:14 PM.
09-05-2008, 05:41 AM #2
"It's simple... Obey the traffic rules"
What's so hard about this one? So many people here complain that speeding (etc) fines are nothing but government revenue raising. The answer to that is "maybe, but it's a voluntary tax". Do I speed? Sometimes - until I look at my speedometer. I look at my speedo frequently, it's part of my mirror check routine. Am I a good, safe driver? I try to be."Professional" means your attitude to the job...
Nullus Anxietas ..... (T Pratchett)
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