Based on printed and oral interviews with Tom Vanderbilt, I fully expected Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do to be an enormously fascinating read. Sadly, for me it was not. This is a book full of overly long chapters, citing a lot of math and psychology/behavioral studies… The result is that we’re told a lot of things we already know. Inattention and distractions cause crashes. Most of us think we’re better drivers than we are. Young people have great physical skills but poor judgment. In summary, there were no “a-ha” moments in this book that reads flatter than a drive down I-5.
Here’s a quick test. See if this holds your interest: “…the average driver adjusts their radio 7.4 times per hour of driving… their attention is diverted 8.1 times per hour by infants, and… they search for something – sunglasses, breath mints, change for the toll – 10.8 times per hour. …In general, the average driver looks away from the road for .06 seconds every 3.4 seconds.” This is a short excerpt from a section explaining how most accidents occur because a driver fails to pay attention for just two seconds. OK, this may be factual but 402 pages of information presented in this manner does not make for scintillating reading.
Then there’s Vanderbilt’s reliance on experts whose comments cause one to worry. For example, he quotes Barry Kantowitz, a psychologist and “human factors” expert on driver time-sharing (meaning performing an additional task while driving): “…people can’t time-share at all. You only get the appearance. It’s like speed reading. You can think you can read really fast but your comprehension disappears.” First, it’s probably task-sharing that’s being referenced here rather than time-sharing. Secondly, there’s plenty of documentation establishing that speed readers – such as graduates of Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics – do in fact raise both their reading speed and comprehension levels. Maybe the “expert” Kantowitz was unaware that John F. Kennedy was a speed reader, as is Jimmy Carter (and this reviewer).
Malcom Gladwell’s blurb about the author on the book’s back cover calls him “a very clever young writer (who) tells us all sorts of things about what driving says about us.” Clever, maybe, but the convoluted quote reflects some of the confusion inherent in this work. I did relate to Vanderbilt’s point – stated often in Traffic – that humans have not driven long enough to have evolved into creatures gifted enough to drive a mile or more a minute. And he makes a few good points about the average American driver’s inflated sense of technical skills and self-esteem. But other than this, I found no great lessons or messages here nor anything that, “may even make us better drivers.” (Another unfulfilled claim from the book’s back cover.)