A New Book on Why We Drive the Way We Do

The best way to enjoy Tom Vanderbilt's new book, "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)," is to forget the psychobabble title and merge like a commuter into the text itself. Like real traffic, it's sometimes slow going. But it's also a delightful tour through the mysteries and manners of driving. Think you do it well? Vanderbilt thinks not.

The big idea: "Driving," Vanderbilt writes, "is probably the most complex everyday thing we do in our lives." Yet most people zip around without ever realizing that their driving is based on faulty perceptions and folksy "superstitions" about life on the road.

Examples: Women can't drive? Actually, men are the terrors: they speed more, honk more, drink more, wear seat belts less and are more likely to be involved in fatal accidents. Nice people merge early? Waiting until the last second to change lanes when traffic bottlenecks actually helps things flow more smoothly. The other lane is moving faster? On the contrary, manic lane changers make up only four minutes of lost time—while the stress of cutting all those people off, Vanderbilt notes, probably takes more time off their lives.

Conclusion: Don't expect traffic nirvana any time soon. Confronted with bad driving all around them, most people give their own wheel-work two thumbs up—and don't see a need to change. Even if they did, they'd still be human. And that, says Vanderbilt, is exactly the problem.

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