On Friday I was cycling along Gosforth High Street when I saw a canvas-coloured VW nudging out of a side road. This is normal rudeness and I wasn’t too fussed, even though I had to swing over a few inches to safely clear the nudger. As I passed I could see the woman driver was on a cellphone. She was inching out into the road. She might not have seen me. Instead of simply riding on, as I would do usually, I braked hard, hopped backwards and asked the driver to – please – get off the phone.
What happened next surprised me.
She said sorry. In fact, she was apology central.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” she said, and looked it. Her phone conversation hadn’t been suspended pending a rant to the idiot asking her to obey the law, she had immediately hung up the call. Amazing.
I explained how, next time, she might inch out and kill somebody. She agreed, and promised not to do it again.
This compliance threw me. This isn’t how it’s meant to work. We’re meant to shout at each other.
Surprised, albeit still a wee bit shaken by my brazenness, I started to ride off. A car pulled to the side of the first car. The woman inside said ‘What’s up? She was wasn’t on the phone was she?”
Upon my nod, she tutted and shook her head at the VW woman.
Apparently, this sort of real-person peer pressure has a big impact on drivers. In Bogata, Colombia, mime artists were once paid to mock bad drivers and jaywalkers. Behaviour improved.
Next time I see a motorist on a mobile phone I won’t be silent, I’ll ask, politely, for more concentration, less yakking. I don’t expect I’ll get the same sort of profuse apology as above but perhaps if lots of people shamed wrong-doers, such behaviour could be curtailed?
I was inspired to take direct action because of the book I’ve just read. Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) is published by Alfred A. Knopf in the US, and Penguin in the UK. It’s written by tech journalist Tom Vanderbilt.
Pleasingly, Traffic is racing up the best-seller lists. This is good because the readers of the book will be mostly mainstream motorists, not just road radicals, pedestrianisers, transport behaviourialists and bicycle advocates.
The message in Traffic is that motorists can kill and that a society designed to placate the car is not a healthy society. Controversially, Vanderbilt ends his book with the belief that cars will eventually have to be GPS and computer controlled, packing more of the motorists that want to drive on to the increasingly congested roads of the world.
Traffic is a detailed, funny and endlessly surprising book. Vanderbilt explains why traffic problems around the world are really people problems. Vanderbilt delves into the psychology of driving, walking, and cycling. He visits Dr Ian Walker, the cycling academic who strapped a camera on his bike and filmed motorists passing him. Walker found that drivers often drive further away from those cyclists without helmets because they appear less anonymous, and when Walker donned a long blonde wig motorists gave him/her even more room because women are perceived to be wobblers.
Some of the research won’t be new to many cyclists. For instance, it’s reasonably well known that Hans Monderman’s idea of removing street signs improves road safety. When 95 percent of the signs on Kensington High Street in London were removed, pedestrian KSIs (‘killed or seriously injured’) dropped by 60 percent.
However, the book is rich in data that doesn’t normally make it out of academia, and Vanderbilt turns even the dullest of studies into interesting examples of how driving can make sinners out of angels.
Though we all may think we are better than average drivers, Vanderbilt examines why we all behave differently when we get behind the steering wheel. He examines what causes road rage – he prefers the term ‘traffic tantrums’ – and why we think that being inside a metal box absolves us from any obligation to anyone else. He compares the driving of men and women, young and old, and has travelled around the world to study traffic jams near and far. Why is it that some countries drive on the left and others on the right? (It’s to do with horses and swords). Why do New Yorkers jaywalk more than people living in Copenhagen? (No, it’s not just cultural, design plays the biggest factor).
But don’t think bad driving and traffic congestion is a modern phenonomen. Traffic starts with a eye-popping section on the history of vehicular congestion, from the cart ruts in Pompeii which show use of detours and one-way streets, through to the terrible congestion in 19th century London and New York. At least our congestion isn’t accompanied by mountains of horse dung.
Vanderbilt comes at the controversial topic of risk compensation from many angles. “Most crashes,” he writes, “happen on dry roads, on clear, sunny days, to sober drivers.”
Wide, clear, smooth roads are statistically more ‘dangerous’ than narrow, singletrack roads with hairpins and steep drop-aways. Drivers are lulled into a false sense of security on the first, but fret for their skin on the second, taking more care.
He will make you think again about mundane street furniture. Traffic lights, for instance. They are bad. Roundabouts, which require care and attention, are good.
It’s Vanderbilt’s book which alerted me to this fantastic 1950 Goofy cartoon about pedestrian/driver split personalities:
NO MORE DISTRACTIONS
There’s some related good news to report in the UK. From today there are some new, tougher penalties for motorists who kill because they were “avoidably distracted.”
The new offences will, for the first time, allow courts to imprison drivers who cause deaths by not paying due care to the road, or to other road users.
The new offences will carry custodial sentences of up to five years.
Justice Minister Maria Eagle said: “Drivers who kill through carelessness will no longer be able to walk away from court with just a fine. Driving requires full concentration at all times. A moment’s distraction can make the difference between life and death.”
What sort of distractions? Driving while talking on a phone or texting. Driving while drinking or eating, adjusting a GPS or car stereo, applying make-up or reading a map.
EXTRACTS FROM ‘TRAFFIC’ BY TOM VANDERBILT
The road, more than simply a system of regulations and designs, is a place where many millions of us, with only loose parameters for how to behave, are thrown together daily in a kind of massive petri dish in which all kinds of uncharted, little-understood dynamics are at work. There is no other place where so many people from different walks of life — different ages, races, classes, religions, genders, political preferences, lifestyle choices, levels of psychological stability — mingle so freely.
The more you think about it — or, rather, the more time you spend in traffic with time to think about it — the more…puzzling questions swim to the surface. Why can one sit in traffic jams that seem to have no source? Why does a ten-minute “incident” create one hundred minutes of gridlock? Do people really take longer to vacate a parking spot when someone else is waiting, or does it just seem so? Do the carpool lanes on highways help fight congestion or cause more of it? Just how dangerous are large trucks? How does what we drive, where we drive, and with whom we drive affect the way we drive? Why do so many New Yorkers jaywalk, while hardly anyone in Copenhagen does? Is New Delhi’s traffic as chaotic as it seems, or does a beautiful order lurk beneath the frenzied surface?
Just when it seemed as if things could not get more complicated on the road, along came a novel and controversial machine, the first new form of personal transportation since the days of Caesar’s Rome, a new-fangled contrivance that upset the fragile balance of traffic. I am talking, of course, about the bicycle.
When I walk, I view cars as loud polluting annoyances…When I drive, I find that pedestrians are suddenly the menance, whacked-out iPod drones blithely meandering across the street without looking. When I ride a bike, I get the worst of both worlds, buffeted by speeding cars whose drivers resent my superior health and fuel economy, and hounded by oblivious pedestrians who seem to think it’s safe to cross against the light of ‘only a bike’ is coming but are then startled and indignant as I whisk past at twenty-five miles per hour.
When bicyclists violate a traffic law, research has showed it is because, in the eyes of drivers, they are reckless anarchists; drivers, meanwhile, are more likely to view the violation of a traffic law by another driver as somehow being required by the circumstances.
Max Hall, a physics teacher in Massachusetts: “The poetic and beautiful result is that four-wheelers behave like fixed objects, by moving very little relative to each other, even at significant speeds, while two-wheeler traffic moves ‘through’ the relatively static field of larger vehicles.”
Perhaps….we will turn the highways into blissfully cooperative, ultraefficient streams of movement with no merging or tailgating or finger flipping. Long before that happens, however, a sooner future seems likely: cars driving themselves, at smoothly synchronized speeds to ensure maximum traffic flow and safe following distances, equipped with merging algorithms set for highest throughput, all overseen by network routers that guide cars down the most efficient paths on these information superhighways.
It’s this last point that fascinates me. It makes total sense. Congestion is set to increase, a huge cost to the economy. The only way to get vehicular traffic moving is to allow computers to take over.
What’s the most dangerous component on a car? The nut behind the wheel. Take away the nut and the streets will be safer.
Motorists face a future of restricted movement (think of the current Beijing experience, with half of the city’s cars forced off the road, every other day). Cyclists, on the other hand, will be able to reclaim city streets, free to go as they please, when they please, protected from cars and trucks because vehicles will be forced to carry on-board speed restrictors, acceleration monitors, and vulnerable road user avoidance devices.
Such freedom to move will create even more cyclists, something that’s already happening. Catering for cyclists – like catering for pedestrians – is the quickest, cheapest and most effective way to civilise a city. And now that message – thanks to Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic – is going mainstream. Thanks, Tom.
Buy the book and bookmark his How We Drive blog.