The average round-trip commute on planet Earth is 1.1 hours, and the average American drives 32 miles a day. That’s just what Tom Vanderbilt was doing when he came up with the idea for Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), an encyclopedic look at people, cars, and the stress that happens when too many of each intersect.
Reading Vanderbilt’s book is a bit like a bump-and-go drive around the world with Malcolm Gladwell as your passenger. Any oddball question you can think of, Vanderbilt sets out to answer it: Why do some countries drive on the left side of the road? How is it that the other lane always seems to move faster? The author spent three years circumventing the globe to observe drivers and traffic—from riding shotgun in a Delhi taxi to spending Oscar night in L.A.’s traffic nerve center, watching engineers reroute traffic to make sure the celebrity attendees’ limos arrived on time. The source notes alone take up more than 80 pages. Here, Vanderbilt offers advice on making your commute faster, safer, and less stressful. And for more driving tips, read up on how to Rule the Road with These Smart Driving Strategies.
Vanderbilt wasn’t just in traffic when his book idea came to him; he was at a merge. Should he merge as soon as the signs appeared, or wait until the last-minute? The answer, he later discovered, was to merge late. A study found a 15 percent improvement in traffic flow when people utilized both lanes until the last possible minute, and then merged.
Be the Tortoise, Not the Hare
The best way to keep traffic moving is for everyone to move at a consistent speed, without suddenly speeding up or slowing down, which has a ripple effect in thick traffic. A brief slowdown—while you fumble with your Spotify playlist, say—is magnified exponentially as the ripple moves through traffic.
Be Careful in the Country
Rural roads have a death rate 2.5 times higher than that of any other type of road. The reasons include dangerous, poorly marked curves, lack of streetlights, distance from medical care, and a higher percentage of alcohol-impaired drivers.
Stop Changing Lanes
You know those guys who constantly switch lanes on a congested highway, weaving through traffic with a death grip? Don’t be that guy. The “chronic lane changer,” reports Vanderbilt, “saved a mere four minutes out of an 80-minute drive.” And for more great driving tips, here are 10 Ways to Speed without Getting a Ticket.
Ditch the SUV
As if we needed another incentive to scrap the Suburban, Vanderbilt points out a host of reasons why SUVs are awful for traffic. They accelerate more slowly, they brake more slowly, and it takes them longer to clear intersections. (One study suggests they can create up to 20 percent more “lost time” at an intersection, and lost time is a huge factor in congestion.) SUVs also obstruct the view of drivers next to them and behind them, creating blind spots and causing other drivers to be more tentative.
Lower Your Seat
Drivers who sit higher feel as if they’re driving slower. Thus, SUV drivers, who are already piloting the vehicles most prone to roll, drive faster because they feel like they’re creeping along. So lower your seat to get the sensation of more speed. It’s a trick sports car drivers are well aware of, and it will help you steer clear of speeding tickets.
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