Customer Review

52 of 68 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inside the Driver's Brain, August 29, 2008
This review is from: Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) (Hardcover)
Driving, at least in America, is an activity that is oddly personal. Our cars, the way we drive, how we handle bad traffic, are so much a part of ourselves, that we bristle, or worse, when someone criticizes our choice of car, the way we drive, or our behavior in traffic.

When I read several (professional) reviews of Traffic, it was hard to believe that they were all about the same book. The reviews seemed to reflect the personalities, the insecurities, the preferences of the reviewers. I was learning more about the reviewers than about the book. Then when I'd read the book, I found that the parts that stuck with me had not been mentioned in any of the reviews I'd seen.

For instance, I was fascinated to read about "Sabbath Timing" of traffic lights at some 75 Los Angeles intersections. From sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday every week, and on certain holidays, they are programmed to flash the walk signal every signal rotation, whether anyone presses the button or not. This is so the orthodox Jews in those neighborhoods cross the streets without pressing the button, which would be against the rule not to use any machines. The city planners considered an alternate solution that would use sensors to detect if a pedestrian was waiting to cross the street, but consultations with local rabbis determined that that would not be in keeping with the restriction.

Another tidbit: all drivers believe they are better than average. Not surprising actually, but still interesting.

A factoid that applies to more than just traffic: most people prefer one long line rather than many short lines, such as that at Wendy's vs. the lines at McDonald's, even if the wait is longer with the long line. We like the "social justice" of the single line, in which no one can pick the "right" line and be served ahead of those who waited longer in the slower lines.

Traffic is a thoroughly-researched book with lots of data and over a hundred pages of end notes and index. Vanderbilt knows his traffic. But so do we. So here are my own observations about traffic.

I spent many years commuting to work in the Bay Area, a 140-mile round trip, on several different shifts, and including right after the Loma Prieta Earthquake, when the Bay Bridge, a critical portion of my commute, was being repaired after a large section fell into the Bay. In all the years spent commuting, the traffic did not strike me as being especially idiosyncratic. It was awful and I hated it, but it seemed no worse or better than most places.

Las Vegas, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. The drivers here have a real "double or nothing" mentality. I quickly learned to hurry through all yellow lights and to check the rear view mirror before stopping at red lights. The alternative was to be rear-ended.

Avoid the temptation (difficult in Las Vegas) to make quick starts when the light turns green. Wait for at least two more cars to go through the intersection and check to see if anyone else is going to run the red. Then go. Jaywalking is very common, and so are accidents resulting from jaywalking.

In spite of all this, I continue to be surprised that school zone speed limits are religiously observed. Even at the school zone on a main street that covers several blocks, the traffic slows to 15 mph and no one cheats. I never see any police cars skulking in the vicinity, so I can't explain this apparent anomaly. The substandard school system seems to rule out the possibility that Las Vegans care more about the welfare of their children than do other communities. It's just one of those local quirks, I guess.

The first time we went to Rome, I fell in love. With the traffic. It was wild, uncontrolled, anarchic, insane! After a few minutes, it seemed less so. In fact, it was beautiful. Everyone was moving in a synchronized way, ignoring signs, signals, crosswalks, but completely aware of the other cars and the pedestrians. Unlike in North America, the Romans did not come to a stop unless absolutely necessary, and then for as short a time as possible. We learned, as every visitor to Rome does, that pedestrians wait for a small break in the traffic, stride confidently into the street, making eye contact or appearing stylishly aloof, your choice, but moving at a constant pace across the street. Traffic will slow slightly, move around you, and you will be incorporated into the flow. You must do what is expected, no sudden moves, no stopping in the middle of the street.

Yes, most of the drivers are driving one-handed, telefonino in the other hand. But they are all aware of the traffic around them. Here, we stare straight ahead in our individual cocoons, passive-aggressively making the other guy go around us when we refuse to acknowledge his presence.

Traffic is the perfect book to listen to while in traffic.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 8, 2008 7:21:21 AM PDT
Rufus Quail says:
At an intersection, the car making the u-turn has the right-of-way over the right turn. Most Vegas drivers don't get this. When a school bus is flashing red, traffic in both directions must stop, even if there is a median strip. I dare anyone in Vegas to try observing this law when going the opposite direction with a median strip present.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 8, 2008 8:28:08 AM PDT
I must admit I didn't know about the right of way regarding u-turns. I generally do take the right of way if I'm making the u-turn, but i thought I was just being pushy. But the flashing lights at the median strip, well, if you observed that rule, you'd get rear-ended several times before you could pull over. Of course, if kids are crossing the median strip, people do stop. Usually.

Posted on Sep 15, 2008 8:58:23 AM PDT
bukhtan says:
Very entertaining and informative review, including the remarks that addressed the topic rather than the book in hand. I was especially struck by the comments on Roman traffic behavior. The description matches, as well, the situation that I remember in Athens, Greece, back in the Seventies (which may have changed since, for all I know). It was quite edifying to compare this behavior to the behavior back in America, specifically Southern cities, and, by another contrast, Boston (!). Made me aware of traffic, vehicular and pedestrian, as a significant manifestation of the general culture.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 7, 2008 7:51:44 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 7, 2008 7:57:33 AM PDT
Rufus Quail says:
Update: The latest Nevada driver manual says a divided road exempts cars from stopping for a school bus when traveling in the opposite direction. The manual doesn't address the u-turn issue. It only says cars already in the intersection have the right-of-way. Does that mean u-turns? No wonder drivers are confused.

Posted on Nov 13, 2008 4:31:13 PM PST
Mark says:
I hated this book; 415 pages of obvious, obscure, and uninteresting information about traffic. The author's tone was at times unintentionally condescending, ie I don't need to plow through 15 pages of factoids and data to learn the faster I drive, the less information my mind can process about my surroundings.

However, I think this is a great review for the book-an accurate observation would be if you found the information in this review interesting, or even fascinating, you'll probably like the book.

Just keep in mind it's 415 pp. long, and author spares no details.
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Location: Las Vegas, Nevada

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