Monday 25 April 2011


"Traffic" by Tom Vanderbilt is a very interesting book that shows some of the not so obvious or intuitive facts about driving. I think his perspective is quite realistic and unbiased. And since as he said, driving is the "most dangerous thing most of us will ever do", it seems to make sense to take some time and think about some of those questions.

The main point is that using only intuition we will misjudge many of the risks and consequences of driving. One typical fallacy is that when people are asked how good their driving is, more than half of them will say they are above average. This is of course not possible,[1] people think that they are better than they are. A similar fact is that people in higher cars will tend to go faster. There is no logical reason for that. It is just a question of perception. A third point is that the design of the street has a significant impact on how we realize whether other people are affected by our driving.

The thing with driving is the high toll of people being seriously injured or even killed. Plane crashes and bus accidents are on the news, but car accidents are something where many of us have personal experience. Vanderbilt points out that even in high risk industries such a high rate of accidents could never be tolerated. Remember September 2001 - even in this very month more people died on US streets than from the terror attacks. I am always amazed by all the fire security measures - and I think we can really say that horror stories that you hear from earlier times are very unlikely to occur again. But why is our society not willing to reduce the amount of people injured or killed on streets? It is obviously possible to find a speed with no serious injuries.

Another point that he makes is how often car commercials tend to show dangerous driving. That is almost like a beer commercial would feature a drunk driver. From my analysis of US car commercials I can say that some other themes might be intended to apply to the herding or pecking order insticts. But practicability or comfort seems to have only a minor role. And even more usually it is assumed that the person watching the commercial will take up a loan over five or six years just to pay this car - like that person does not have anything better to do with their money than paying for a car which is a little bit bigger and more noisy than usual. I guess the reason is prestige. But it is of course sad that society gives up so much for prestige. Isn't there a way of showing the status in the pecking order that does not annoy anyone else?

With respect to smoking there was a lot of increase in awareness recently and people are realizing that smoking may seriously affect other people not smoking. It is not perfect yet, but at least I am noticing that smokers would sometimes apologize for smoking in the presence of non-smokers. But I don't see that with cars. I always see cars racing across pedestrian crossings as soon as it looks like the person waiting is scared enough to give up his right to cross. People have realized that smoking is dangerous and a person smoking a really strong and filterless cigarette will seem like a nut rather than a really cool person. But for some reason someone driving an unreasonably large car will actually have a high social status, even though he is scaring little children off the street, wastes precious recources, and pollutes everyone with noise. I think here society still has to wake up.

[1] Precisely, one would have to specify that the median is meant, not the mean. If the distribution had a high skewness, i.e. there were some really bad drivers, then it would in fact be possible that more than half are above the mean.

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