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Tom Vanderbilt Talks “Traffic”

Whether you're a transportation geek or just curious about why people do the things they do behind the wheel, Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic is one of the most fascinating books you can open up.

Tom, who also writes the excellent blog How We Drive, was kind enough to drop by the Streetfilms office for a conversation about his vast research into the world of car and driver. Here's our ten-minute highlight reel of his talk with OpenPlans founder and Streetsblog publisher Mark Gorton. The interview covers subjects from the Invisible Gorilla to intense DriveCam footage of automobile crashes to the dangers of noise-canceling technology touted by car manufacturers. Whether you drive every day or not at all, you'll be enlightened about what happens inside people's heads once they're inside an automobile.

Mark Gorton: [0:02] Hi, I'm Mark Gorton and I'm here today with Tom Vanderbilt, author of the book "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and What it Says About Us." And I would personally like to endorse this book. It is one of he best, most readable books on the subject of traffic and transportation, which is admittedly a somewhat obscure genre. [0:24] It seems like one of the big themes in your book, and you have whole chapters on this, is almost how completely unaware drivers are of their own behavior and the implications of their behavior.
Tom Vanderbilt: [0:36] I sometimes wonder if I should have called the book "Feedback, " because so much about this is just people responding, whether traffic in general or the way we behave in an automobile, is responding to feedback. You drive to work, you come home. You may have been involved in some sort of close calls. There may have been situations where you wouldn't have been able to avoid something had it gone wrong, but we don't get those messages. And every day that you don't get into a crash sort of emboldens you.
Mark: [1:00] There's a company called Drive Cam, is that what it's called? Why don't you describe what they do.
Tom: [1:06] They have a little dashboard mounted camera or rear view window mounted camera that is sort of like a TiVo, it's always recording. And they also have some accelerometers in the device and some of them have GPS as well, so it's all sort of synced up. And whenever there's a hard braking event or a steering event, the camera responds and captures that moment. This camera opens the window onto the inner life of he driver, which I think has been unknown for many decades. Until you could actually get some kind of unobtrusive technology into a car, how did you know what people were really doing. People can then get coaching. They can see where they've made mistakes. This myth that they're he perfect driver has been shattered.
Mark: [1:44] A lot of the times, these cameras are recording events which the drivers are not aware of themselves because they are fiddling with something in the car or texting or maybe even dozing off. It's sort of amazing that you have these situations where the driver is completely unaware of what's going on. And sometimes these cameras are filming people on the street who are almost getting killed, and unless the camera captured this the driver would have no idea that it happened because they were distracted.
Tom: [2:10] The famous gorilla video by Daniel Simons, the cognitive psychologist, they have a book coming out called "The Invisible Gorilla." Their whole idea is you might be looking for something else. You might be looking for a car for example, when there's an intersection, when there's a car coming. If something comes along that doesn't match the attentional set of what your mind is primed to see at that moment, you may in fact miss it, even though you're looking right at it. And they call these "looked but did not see" crashes, which is a curious phrase.
Mark: [2:36] One of the things that you get from your book is the sense that drivers, there's something about the bubble of the car that kind of disconnects people from the outside. And that people are almost completely unaware of the impact that their driving has on people outside the car.
Tom: [2:54] Yes, I think both philosophically and literally. They do interesting tests where they cover the speedometer with tape and then put people in different sorts of cars. Cars that have a quieter cabin, people actually drive measurably faster in cars with quieter cabins. And I was just looking at an ad for the new Acura has all sorts of active noise canceling technology that screen out unwanted engine noise, making the cabin yet even more quiet, reducing another source of the feedback that's coming through the cabin, shutting the driver off from that external world. [3:26] Now drivers themselves are now taking that a step further by, of course, engaging with mobile devices, which if you thought it was bad before, that level of separation, now it's gone beyond a whole other order.
Mark: [3:41] Let me see if I can find this in your book. "Vehicles are moving at velocities for which we have no evolutionary training. For most of the life of the species, we did not try and make interpersonal decisions at speed." We live in a city where you have this interaction between people moving down the street at pretty fast speeds and the people who are on that street, and how they're almost in a completely different worlds.
Tom: [4:08] You probably begin to lose eye contact at around 20, 25 miles per hour. That's exactly when the level of potential pedestrian fatality really begins to soar. At up to 20 miles an hour a pedestrian still has a pretty good chance of surviving a crash with a car. But beyond that, it really begins to accelerate. So just at that moment when we cut ourselves off from the eye contact is really that moment at which we're not evolved to be able to survive an impact. So just an interesting sort of suggestion that's been put out there.
Mark: [4:36] A lot of times you see somebody do something that's really reckless, like that almost kills another person. And then you look in the car, and it looks just like the nicest little old lady, or something like that. And you kind of wonder how is it that someone who clearly would never almost push someone down the stairs or off the edge of a cliff or something. But they almost hit them with a car going 30 miles an hour.
Tom: [5:01] I think the key factors are again anonymity and again lack of feedback. If you look at Internet chat rooms for example, you're signing on, it's not your real name, you lose that impulse to behave in a civic manner. There's less of sort of social glue holding you together.
Mark: [5:21] When you're in a city, just turning through in an intersection, and again in a dense city like New York with a lot of people, there are times when people really force their way through an intersection with a car. And again you talk about how people try very hard not to make eye contact because then they're not responsible for their actions somehow?
Tom: [5:39] The Chicago police did do some of these stings. I think stings, blitzes, are worthwhile to kind of raise the profile of some of these issues. The troubling thing was when they pulled the drivers over and started talking to them, issuing the tickets, a high amount of people just weren't aware that they were actually doing anything wrong. They'd say "Oh, the light was blinking, the 'Don't Walk' light was blinking" as if that man couldn't be in the crosswalk. So there's sort of a fundamental in some ways misunderstanding or lack of understanding about traffic laws. It's far too easy to get a license, it's far too difficult to lose one, in this country, I think. You can have multiple DWI infractions, I mean the most egregious of aggressive driving, you're still holding a license.
Mark: [6:19] Basically, the only feedback people get is when they get a traffic ticket or they're in a crash. And those things happen once every several years for the average person. Or even if they happen a lot.
Tom: [6:32] Yes, and even in those cases, based on cognitive dissonance and some other psychological theories. There's a wonderful book called "Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me, " they use the example of going to one of these traffic schools that you have to go to in Los Angeles if you've racked up enough points on your license. They're sort of a joke. They actually don't improve traffic safety according to the studies that have been done, but you sort of have to go there and you sit through some lessons for a while. And people are asked to explain what they did. And you sort of go around the circle and no one owns up. They're all sort of "It was the other guy." [7:05] And this gets into just one other psychological thing I want to bring up, one other phenomenon which is, I think, important in traffic, called the fundamental attribution error. When we see someone else do something, psychologists argue, it's easy for us to blame or attribute the reason for what they did to something about that person, about their nature. When we ourselves are asked to explain why we did something, we tend to blame situational factors. The way to think about this is to say "You fell, I was pushed." That sort of thing happens all the time in traffic, where we're making these snap judgments about other people. And this gets into what I was talking about with some of the modal conflict. People don't really understand what cyclists might have to do while on a cycle, so they sort of attribute it to something about that personality, "Well that's a cyclist." Whereas a driver, they might be more willing to forgive, because it's something they're more familiar with it. So again, I think that's just another form of this disconnect.
Mark: [8:00] I think even the people in charge of traffic enforcement don't understand the strong correlation between speeding and severity of crashes and just even being able to react quickly enough. And a lot of these behaviors, I think now you see a lot of concern about texting because it is so extreme. But just anything that can distract you at all, even tuning the radio in the car, that all of these behaviors create the dangerous situations which will probabilistically lead to crashes. And so if you want to solve the problem of and really reduce the number of crashes and injuries and death, you have to go after these root causes. You have to go after speeding. You have to go after red light running. You have to go after reckless driving. You have to, to some extent, re-engineer the road to make those things happen.
Tom: [8:49] Exactly. And while I sort of like to bang on about personal responsibility and people do need to sort of step up in that regard, we know that accidents are going to happen. We're humans, we're not perfect. Things are going to go wrong. So again to go back to this idea of the forgiving road. And one of the things that was always left out of that equation was if you reduce speeds, drivers have more time to forgive their own errors and prevent something from going wrong. And that's again sort of been left out of the equation and we've gotten obsessed with things like removing obstacles from roads, when in fact the obstacles may in some sense actually be the safety device.
Mark: [9:25] Well, thanks a lot for being here. And once again, an excellent book for anyone who is interested or having to deal with the topic of traffic. It's very informative and shockingly entertaining given the topic.


Clarence Eckerson, Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • JamesR

    Very well done! It's amazing how little rational discussion of this there is in the mainstream media, yet it is something that hugely effects all of our lives in some way. Automotive psychology should be its own sub-discipline, if it already isn't.

  • Frightening Footage

    I can see a day where DriveCam will be required to own a car. Then, we'd have full compliance and accountability for drivers. Yeah, sure we are going into an area of privacy - but remember driving is a privilege, not a right. Bring it on.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/bicyclesonly/ BicyclesOnly

    Great film. I'm definitely buying the book.

  • Jim

    All we need to do is get everyone who drives to read the book, as cyclists already know what's going on. Ms. Oprah came out against texting while driving, so I suppose we're moving in somewhat the right direction. Audi's full internet experience in some new models is that step in the wrong direction.

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/ArthurShotwell Josh

    "It's far too easy to get a license and it's far too difficult to lose one."

    Word!

  • http://walkbikejersey.blogspot.com/ Andy B from Jersey

    I find it interesting that he began to touch upon car technology but didn't follow through.

    When many roadway design practices became the standards we use today, cars were much less capable machines then they are today. Think about it. Cars back in the 1960's and 1970's would start to shake and rattle at speeds about 60mph. Today the average cars are highly refined and incredibly well engineered machines capable of performance well beyond all but the most exotic sports cars from 30 or 40 years ago. They can accelerated faster, corner at higher g-forces, brake quicker all with a suspension and acoustic dampening that greatly trivializes speeds.

    So my point is this. Roadway design speeds derived from standards established 40 years ago cannot still be valid with today's modern cars. A road that was designed to become uncomfortable for the driver at 45mph 40 years is likely not to seem uncomfortable until speeds exceed 65mph in a modern car today.

  • momos

    Fantastic film. Mark always does a great interview. The book sounds fascinating. Kudos to the film editor who brilliantly demonstrates the subject matter with well-chosen video footage.

  • Ken

    I own the book and it's next on on my "to read" list, but I wonder whether Vanderbilt considers the importance, at least here in NYC, of peer pressure on drivers to keep moving, even if it means threatening the life of the occasional pedestrian or bicyclist. We live in a town where speed is prized above nearly all else, which may be fine on a sidewalk but is highly dangerous on a street. How many times have you seen a turning car waiting for peds to cross, and the drivers behind start honking as if to suggest that the proper behavior is to mow down the pedestrians? The lead driver is under tremendous pressure from his fellow drivers to come close to doing just that, and he/she inevitably passes that pressure on to other drivers down the road. We need to change the fundamental expectation that it's possible to use a car to get somewhere in a hurry.

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/jass jass

    I agree with Ken. Another example is the right turn on red. If a vehicle decides to do a full stop and wait for a pedestrian to finish crossing who may be two lanes away, the vehicles behind will start to honk. Yet another example is speeding. Say you're on a one lane road (one each way) with a speed limit of 40. If you're going 40, and another vehicle comes up behind you and starts to tailgate....you're probably going to speed up a little bit.

  • Tom

    It is hard to use the word "riveted" to describe an interview. But here I was.

  • Elan

    Tom and Mark are both so dreamy. :)

  • http://www.chance-wilcox.last-memories.com Shelli Ralls

    Thank you for your book. It identifies all the behaviors people are not aware of that are distractive and deadly. My son, Chance Wilcox, 25 was killed by a distracted driver on their cell phone, March 24, 2008, who clearly was not paying attention. It is time that people pay attention.

  • Rob

    " . . .you have to re-engineer the road to make that happen." Hmmm. . . re-engineering a road in the highway engineer lexicon means expanded capacity, additional right-of-way aquisition in order to fix geometric deficiencies, etc. What we need is to re-engineer our approach to soliving problems. There is more than one way to respond to a bottleneck. There is more than one way to respond to being over capacity. There is more than one way to improve safety associated with geometric deficiencies in urbanized areas, where they are common for a variety of reasons, most notably right-of-way and community impact concerns. The single greatest design deficiency in urban highways is the absence of a parallel high quality transit amenity with added inducement to use it, such as tolling highways lanes. Creating new access to high quality tranist recieves suignficant public suypport, yileds significant socio-economic benefits, helps the environment, and greatly enhances commuter safety. This should be a slanm dunk, but we keep getting proposals to expand urban highways, with safety and design deficiencies being the primary basis for accessing legal authority to construct a project that does not otherwise make any sense at all. Arguably, not even "safety and design deficiencies" are sufficient cause when superior alternatives exist. But, I'm preaching to the choir, I suppose. Just venting following a meeting yesterday on EIS development for an urban highway expansion . . .

  • http://www.norrebro.nu P. Simonsen Saxtorph, Miljøpunkt Nørrebro, Denmark.

    Trafic and polution pose a major problem in coming years, and what is one surposed to do about it?
    Is green taxes, public transportation, electrical vericles, 2. generations bio-fuels the trafic solution, if and when ever they will be taken serious by the politicians?
    I certainly hope so!