It could drive us to think

 

Do we remain fully human when we get behind the wheel of a car? Author Tom Vanderbilt has some interesting theories about road rage, changing lanes and why we don't beep posh cars, writes Fiona McCann

NOT MANY PEOPLE have heard of the Irish scientist Mary Ward, but she made history when she was killed by a steam car in Ireland in 1869, thus becoming the world's first recorded fatality in an automobile accident.

"You guys have been dealing with this for longer than anyone," concludes Tom Vanderbilt, the New York-based author of Traffic, a new book that looks at cars and what happens to people when they get inside them.

This doesn't mean we can't learn a thing or two from this 40-year-old Volvo driver, who spent three years examining why the other lane always seems to move faster, whether removing road signs and markings would make roads safer, and how more roads lead to more traffic.

While many of these hypotheses may seem counter-intuitive, they have emerged from Vanderbilt's extensive research into - and time spent in - traffic, and have their root in an epiphany he had while sitting in, unsurprisingly, traffic. "It really was the mundane moment on a New Jersey highway," explains Vanderbilt, whose repeated experiences in the slower lane fuelled his quest to find out why the other lane was moving at a greater clip.

His research led him down all sorts of sidestreets and the occasional cul-de-sac, but also to fascinating insights, including the controversial conclusion that drivers who merge long after they've been told to are actually doing us all a service, and the powerful suggestion that the more roads we build, the more traffic we'll end up with.

Bad news, then, for the extra lanes planned for the M50 surely, if it only means more cars will be using them? "There's this whole classic practice which has been called "Predict and Provide" in the planning world," explains Vanderbilt, who, he says, is predicated on the assumption "that the Irish population will grow by X number of people by the year 2020, so there will be X number of new road users, so we need to provide X miles of roads." Yet Vanderbilt's collated research shows that "when more lane-miles of road are built, more miles are driven", leading to questions about whether or not providing people with better roads just encourages more people to use them.

"To what extent are you shaping that new demand by the supply you've provided?" asks Vanderbilt. "It is a feedback loop, that people respond to whatever's available." So what's the solution to a problem that is particularly marked in a country where, as Vanderbilt himself points out, car-ownership rates have doubled since 1990? How do we cure the curse of congestion? "I don't find congestion per se a bad thing," argues Vanderbilt, which is just as well given that one of the chapters in Traffic comes with the title: "Why women cause more congestion than men."

Before all we ladies start honking our horns, the reason given is more to do with women taking on an increased workload, which now includes commuting to work, as well as ferrying kids about and picking up laundry and groceries, than with some gender-specific driving habit which is causing tailbacks.

Whatever the reason, though, Vanderbilt has no beef with congestion, other than the road rage, or "traffic tantrums" as he prefers to call them, that result.

"You'll find congestion being used as a bludgeon to beat down potential things like adding bike lanes to a street and cutting a lane," he argues. "Congestion was just constructed as a cultural evil by business people who want to improve the productivity of the city, as if moving cars around faster was the only way to do that."

As Vanderbilt explains it, all great cities in history have suffered from congestion problems, with Caesar having to declare a daytime ban on carts and chariots to deal with such problems in ancient Rome. Does our obsession with congestion and commuting times mean we are focussing on the wrong thing? "The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that when you tally up the costs of injuries in crashes, it seems to be higher than the estimates for what congestion costs in terms of lost productivity," says Vanderbilt.

THIS MAY BE WHY issues surrounding road safety get so much play in Traffic, with Vanderbilt paying serious attention to the various factors that contribute to making roads dangerous. From the strange and often irrational decisions we make on the road - we don't beep our horns at "high-status" cars, and we give cyclists wearing helmets less room than those without them - to the belief that we are in our own private bubbles in cars, which means we use them as opportunities to cry, pick our noses and talk to ourselves.

Part of the problem, according to Vanderbilt, is that being in a car can have a dehumanising effect, given that the normal modes for communication, like eye contact and speech, are removed. "The road is public space, but it's a weird situation and I can't think of a parallel, where we're in a private space within the public space," explains Vanderbilt.

So what are the consequences of morphing into machines once we get behind a wheel? "That dehumanisation definitely makes a situation less pleasant," says Vanderbilt, whose book points to the strangely aggressive behaviour often exhibited by the most mild-mannered people when they start driving. "On the flipside, the humanisation is almost what makes it dangerous. All the irretrievably, inevitably human things about us - our vision and our perception - these are the things that give us most trouble on the road, our human decision-making and processes. The traffic environment is both too human and not human enough."

If we separate traffic from people, as is more easily done on a motorway, where the chances of encountering an actual, vehicle-less human are particularly slim, that kind of dehumanisation and anonymity is inevitable.

"On a highway it's going to be an anonymous place. I'm not advocating making eye contact with your fellow traveller at 80 miles an hour," he says. Many of the problems occur when roads and human spaces meet, like when roads pass through cities or towns and those anonymous motorists are suddenly dealing with the less anonymous breeds of cyclist and pedestrian.

The solution devised by the late Dutch traffic engineer, Hans Monderman was to blend the car, bike and pedestrian realms in a town or city, lowering the kerb and getting rid of traffic signs so that drivers are forced to interact with others, and negotiate their behaviour. It worked spectacularly for the town of Oudehaske, where traffic slowed and drivers became more careful, but would it work elsewhere? In Dublin's O'Connell Street, the opposite proved the case with concern raised over the lack of clear road markings and the blurring of road and footpath when a pedestrian was hit by a bus in 2005 after stepping inadvertently onto the road.

"Any safety scheme is always going to be indicted upon the first casualty," admits Vanderbilt. "In theory what the blurring is supposed to do is to raise awareness to both parties to what is going on." This may not always work, but Vanderbilt points to the fact that every situation contains so many variables that what applies to one may not apply to another.

"There is a larger question," he points out. "Can we ever fully eliminate risk from any environment in traffic?"

As far as Vanderbilt is concerned, the only way to do that is to make cars go slower. "In cities, I am really convinced that the only thing to do is lower absolute speed in general because if something does go wrong, it just improves the chance for a pedestrian, it improves their chances of survival," he says with unassailable logic. "Barriers and widening roads just encourage cars to go faster."

As for our traffic jams, all may not be lost. "Your car culture was a reflection of the boom, which I've read is subsiding a bit now," Vanderbilt says, adding that the things that "inform congestion" are affluence and the price of petrol. Silver-lining seekers could extrapolate that if the economy dives, so too might the number of cars on our roads.

Yet Vanderbilt admits that once someone has paid for a car "they want to use it". Hitting them where it hurts, however - in their already aching wallets - may be the only way to get them off the roads, with Vanderbilt pointing to the kind of congestion charges introduced in London and Stockholm as the obvious solution.

"There are quite easy responses governments could make if they wanted to," he says. "The political cost of eliminating congestion is higher than the cost of allowing congestion." While on the subject of politics, Traffic also outlines a correlation between corruption and road safety, pointing to the fact that "the nations that rank as the least corrupt . . . are also the safest places in the world to drive". Whatever can be extrapolated from this about Irish road safety, our dubious accolade as the country where the first automobile accident took place may not inspire confidence in those, like Vanderbilt, who are already conflicted about driving.

"Now I'm really going to be careful when I'm in Dublin," he jokes. Anyone who reads Traffic, with its powerful reminders of the myriad things that can, and do, go wrong on the roads, will be too.

• Traffic, published by Allen Lane, €16.99, will be in bookshops from Thursday