Quick quiz: What is “the most dangerous thing most of us
will ever do”?
Correct answer: Getting in a car, turning the ignition key and
driving off somewhere.
Tom Vanderbilt has taken a long, hard look at this seemingly
commonplace activity and distilled what he found into a book that
is part scientific research study, part sociological inquiry, part
self-help manual and part cautionary tale. He has certainly not
solved all the myriad mysteries of the traffic puzzle, but he has
produced a lively study of the problem in all its complexity.
The book is a fascinating compendium of information gleaned from
literally all over the world. The only continent he has not
considered is Antarctica --- and there are no roads there yet. If
there ever are any, you get the feeling that Vanderbilt will be
there, notebook and tape recorder at the ready.
If you look to Vanderbilt for some grand overarching Theory of
Traffic Everything, you will look in vain; but you will learn all
sorts of delightful oddball facts about the way traffic affects
people everywhere. Are there really highways in Israel
segregated by race --- some for Israelis, some for Arabs? Are
architects at high risk for accidents because they are often busy
looking at buildings instead of at the road? Are roads full of
traffic “hazards” and obstacles often safer than
uncluttered roads exactly because those hazards encourage
people to drive more carefully? Is there really some subtle link
connecting a nation’s Gross Domestic Product, its degree of
political corruption and its accident rate?
If there is a single most important theory to be derived from
all this detail, it might be this: Traffic experts and road
behavior researchers can study the problem all they want, but the
human factor is always lurking behind some roadside bush to make
their calculations virtually worthless, no more than educated
It is simply astounding the number of “experts” who
are out there recording and analyzing our every move behind the
wheel. They can be found in foundations, universities, government
departments and industrial boardrooms. They are watching the way
you merge at construction sites, the way you make left turns across
heavy traffic, even the way you hunt for parking spaces at the
supermarket. They have compared the way you drive to the way ants
hunt for food (the ants do a better job).
The number of studies that Vanderbilt cites is staggering. If
you start to worry about all this stuff every time you get behind
the wheel, you just may never go anywhere.
And of course the experts have constructed their own verbal
roadblocks and hazards with terms like “throughput
maximization,” “passive safety,” “negative
externalities” and “chimsil.” (My personal
favorite is the soothing notion of “traffic
A friend of mine once had a student from Mexico City who passed
on to him the basic law of driving in that traffic madhouse:
“You first --- after me.” Unfortunately, Tom Vanderbilt
was not around to record that bit of road wisdom --- but he did
indeed spend time in Mexico City trying to unravel the mysteries of
its traffic headaches, just as he had done in Beijing, Delhi, New
York and Australia. His book is a delight. Honk if you love a good
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 23, 2011