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"Traffic" Author Addresses Issues

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The New York Times fielded questions for “Traffic” author Tom Vanderbilt. 

Several of the answers were of particular relevance to Nevada drivers.

“Keep to the right, pass only on the left” laws

Q. After driving in Europe — mostly Germany — for a number of years, I’m convinced that most highway congestion problems in the United States are caused by failure to observe or enforce “keep to the right, pass only on left” laws. Traffic flows smoothly on autobahns because slow vehicles stay in the right lane. Faster drivers always have the right of way. It works beautifully! Your thoughts? — Fred Bothwell

A. The autobahn is tricky for direct comparison because a) there often is congestion; b) they have automated speed limits in some sections, so when traffic is forming all lanes are forced to slow; and c) there’s a much different vehicle mix — fewer drivers in general, and a richer driver population — including no trucks on Sunday. The roads, owing to higher taxes, are typically better maintained and suffer less from construction delays.

There’s also the obvious logical fallacy of worrying about “keep right” laws when the person concerned about such laws is violating the speed limit law by 15 m.p.h. or higher. Also, in heavy traffic, during which, incidentally, the left lane often clogs first, there’s a social question here: because the highway handles the most vehicles per hour at 55-60 m.p.h., why should a lane be given over to fewer drivers who want to go faster when that negatively affects the remaining flow? (echoes of the H.O.V. lane here).

That said, even for drivers going within relative bands of the speed limit, but with slightly different speeds, there’s a good logic to assigning some order to those speeds, in the same way there’s a logic to doing this on things like people movers on airports (one of my pet peeves is the “road hogs” who treat it like a place to stand, blocking all the “lanes”). But in traffic there are always weird exceptions, like an exit or entrance on the left, etc. There’s also the notion that someone is always going to want to go faster than someone else, so it raises the question of that one person’s desire is really equivalent to the cost of all the other people having to make lane changes, raising the crash risk for every other driver.

55 m.p.h. Speed Limit in light of increasing gas prices

Q. In light of current gas prices and the likelihood of ongoing increases, do you think bringing back the 55 m.p.h. speed limit is a good idea? Do you think it feasible? — Stephen

A. As this debate could fill an entire book, I’ll just say if you’re interested in reducing fuel usage (and thus prices) and road casualties, it’s a good idea. On the feasibility question, I think we’d need much, much higher fuel prices, speed governors or I.S.A. (intelligent speed adaption) technology in cars, or automated speed camera rollouts. Appealing to people’s altruism or common sense (e.g., burning less fossil fuel) seems to fail as an abstract principle, in traffic as elsewhere.

“Anti-civility suit”

Q. Mr. Vanderbilt, do you believe, as I do, that as many people enter their vehicles they feel they’re putting on a kind of “anti-civility suit” that somehow absolves them of all requirements to function as polite, humane participants in society? — Sixto Fernandez

A. By all means. Walt Disney got at this brilliantly in Motor Mania, the 1950 short that shows Goofy changing from “Mr. Walker” to “Mr. Wheeler.” I think the reasons are varied, ranging from the sensorial isolation of being in a car to lingering class issues to anonymity and lack of feedback or consequences for acting rudely in traffic, to the very stress of driving itself, amongst other things. Of course, some people simply act in the car like they do off-road. It’s been shown, for example, that people with more off-road criminal violations are more likely to commit on-road violations.

For more of Vanderbilt’s discussion, in which he addresses roundabouts, geographical differences in honking behavior, ramp meters, and traffic light timing, check out the full question/answer session here.