Driving Badly

We All Do It. No Exceptions.

Better Than Nothing?

Better Than Nothing?

Michael Agger at Slate reviews Tom Vanderbilt’s new book Traffic.

[L]ook at the chimsil, the name for that third rear brake light that suddenly appeared on cars in the 1980s. Do they help? Hard to say. Initial hopes were high, but recent studies have concluded that the chimsil prevents only a small amount of rear-end accidents. The reason might be the Peltzman effect, which argues that drivers offset safety improvements such as seat belts and anti-lock brakes by driving more dangerously. Wait, does that mean it would be better not to wear seat belts, to keep ourselves more acutely aware of our mortality? And what about helmets?

Emphasis mine – and I always thought so. At least, I have ever since I learned that driver’s side air bags kill people who sit too close to the steering column (and since I have very short legs, I certainly do).

And I’ll go him one better.

Only two months ago we experienced a short but very intense storm in the suburban areas north of DC. It happened right before the evening rush hour, and, of course the lights went out. Traffic lights not exempted.

In this, the second most traffic-congested area of the country (after L.A.), during the most congested part of the day, tens of thousands of drivers were forced to take their lives into their own hands and brave intersections without the benefit of technology.

Seldom have I seen moving so smoothly in my 29 years here. Of course not. It had to, because drivers were not only extra cautious at the intersections, they were on their best behavior, too. The outage lasted for three days in some areas. The impact to the commute for the duration was not zero – it was positive.

“In traffic,” writes Vanderbilt, “we struggle to stay human.” He approaches traffic as a collective human act, with all the complexity that entails. Our driving is fraught with paradoxes, unintended consequences, and inexplicable behaviors.

I’ll say!

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2 Comments on “Driving Badly”

  1. Paul Says:

    If what you’re saying is that it’s better to leave safety devices like seat belts and air bags (and motorcycle/bicycle helmets, I assume) out of vehicles so that people drive more cautiously, then I would dare to call you a crazy person.

    First of all, what you observed during the power outage was nothing more than caution due to lack of familiarity. If only you could have given that experiment a little more time you would have observed, over that time, less caution and eventually, the same types of traffic problems you see today, working lights and all. Queuing theory indicates that above a certain traffic density, all it takes is one idiot to start that all too common accordion effect. The impact of cautious driving during your power emergency simply wouldn’t last, given the overwhelming power of human nature to become emboldened with familiarity. All it takes is that one idiot, traffic controls be damned. The smooth traffic you witnessed would have been history in a very short period of time as everyone acclimated to the new driving conditions, as the impatient (read: bolder, more reckless) drivers made driving more hazardous for everyone else.

    I’ll do you one up: My experience living in Brazil bore out the fact that in an environment where traffic controls were non-existent, the drivers were insanely idiotic, even more so than I have ever observed in cities like Boston or New York. No one – passengers, pedestrians, or the unfortunately guy on his donkey cart – was immune from the driver who preferred to lay on his horn as he went through the intersection rather than slow down to listen for someone else blowing their horn as they crossed the intersection at the same moment. In essence, the overall net effect of the reduction in traffic controls (or safety equipment, or even laws regulating drinking and driving) would not be positive at all.

    Even Peltzman agrees that on average, safety devices work. You need only look at the annually declining vehicular death rates even as vehicle miles per year increases. The Peltzman effect is more about the spreading of the gaussian curve of human behaviors; and it’s those extreme outliers that are the problem.

    Which brings up a very interesting point: Maybe, just maybe, traffic courts should mandate that those people caught speeding or doing other forms of reckless driving be forced to drive their vehicles unbelted, without air bags, on bald tires. Hmmmm…


  2. joe Says:

    Ah… so you’ve come around to my way of thinking then…

    Well, actually, I was thinking that a large spike in the steering column pointed directly at the reckless driver might be in order, so I guess you haven’t completely come around.

    Okay – I won’t claim that the $300 we spend on each seatbelt and $600 spent on each air bag (and the $100 motorcyclists spend on each helmet) haven’t had a positive effect and saved uncounted lives, but I will point out that their safety aspects – even for seat belts – were oversold, and the costs underreported. The effects, as in the number of children with ruptured livers from seat belts in otherwise minor incidents, have been occasionally perverse. What Peltzman points out is that the situation is more interestingly complex at many levels than we might think.

    No, we don’t want to get rid of seat belts and air bags in some weird social experiment to prove the laws of unintended consequences.

    But we should not be surprised at the diminishing returns from these “solutions” either.

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