Why We Drive the Way We Do

Next American City reviews a new book called <em>Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says about Us)</em> by journalist Tom Vanderbilt, which follows in the footsteps of <em>Freakonomics</em> and <em>Blink</em>.
August 15, 2008, 12pm PDT | Tim Halbur
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"Touching on neuroscience, psychology, economics and urban planning, Vanderbilt leads us through a series of case studies that gently inform us, despite what we know in our hearts, that we are not all traffic experts. He takes us to the Los Angeles traffic control center on Oscar night, uses the lines at Disneyland's Space Mountain to explain the pros and cons of congestion pricing and introduces us to a Stanford University team that has discovered how difficult it is to program a robot to drive a car.

Programming humans to drive is nearly as difficult, it turns out, as the act of driving is fraught with optical and neurological blind spots. The speed of our vehicles has outpaced the speed of evolution, such that our brains and eyes, accustomed to traveling at much slower speeds, deceive us repeatedly. One study cited by Vanderbilt found that at 30 mph drivers are presented with roughly 1,320 pieces of information a minute - and we have a distinct fondness for misinterpreting them. We have trouble gauging the speed of an oncoming car at a distance, for example, and in a phenomenon known as "inattentional blindness," we tend to overlook the objects we don't expect to see - the very objects that pose the most danger. In ways large and small, we misjudge risk."

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Published on Thursday, August 14, 2008 in The Next American City
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