“Redlights and Roundabouts”
A Review of
How We Drive
(and What it says About Us).
By Margaret Roark.
My husband and I have a running argument that takes place in the car. Traveling down a busy street, we come to a stoplight, at a puny intersection, that is invariably red for an unnecessarily long time. This steams him, and I counter by singing lyrics from Jonny Lang’s “Red Light”: “A chance to breathe while sitting at a red light/ You look around reflecting on your life.” I accuse him, as the song goes, of speeding through his whole life. Both of us are reacting, in our different ways, to the inordinate amount of time we spend in the car. In Traffic: How We Drive (and What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt explores, in a fascinating and comprehensive way, the psychological impact of lives lived in traffic: the assumptions we make on the road; the dangers and distractions we tend to underestimate; the way our behavior changes when we get behind the wheel: in other words, all the “human factors” of driving that persist no matter how technology and engineering attempt improvements.
Though we tend to view driving as relatively easy, Vanderbilt shows it for the highly complicated and taxing job that it is: “We are navigating through a legal system . . . becoming social actors in a spontaneous setting . . . processing a bewildering amount of information, . . . constantly making predictions and calculations of risk and reward, and we’re engaging in a huge amount of sensory and cognitive activity—the full scope of which scientists are just beginning to understand.” (14). We also tend to have an over-inflated estimation of our driving skills. For instance, people tend to measure their driving skills based on the amount of car “accidents” they have had—Vanderbilt takes issue with the word accident for downplaying driver culpability—when actually, a more accurate assessment is based on how many almost-crashes a driver has had. Drivers suffer from lack of feedback, Vanderbilt points out; the anonymity, impersonality, and lack of accountability of being behind the wheel encourage aggression and an individualist attitude that resists cooperation. (If you have noticed fewer people using their turn signals, you are right. Vanderbilt pegs this as a symptom of vehicular narcissism). Traffic engineers often meet with resistance when trying to implement something that would benefit the collective driving population.
Driving is filled with “tensions and contradictions,” Vanderbilt notes; most of the book is about exploring these. In Chapter Seven, Vanderbilt looks at the paradox that dangerous roads are safer than straight flat ones (drivers pay more attention). Roads with fewer traffic signs also keep drivers on their toes. Risky-seeming roundabouts (think of the Griswold family in National Lampoon’s European Vacation) create fewer fatalities than intersections with stoplights. In
Traffic is not an outright jeremiad, though it easily could have been, lamenting over the state of the postmodern driver. Vanderbilt reports our driving follies without drawing sweeping conclusions. The facts are damning enough. For instance, Americans spend more on driving than on food or health care; large numbers of us spend more time in the car than we do eating with our families. And where are people driving? To the mall. I was surprised not to find more here on the environmental effects of traffic. But Vanderbilt believes that fuel-efficient cars are not too far away. (And this is not all the cars of the future may have going for them—Vanderbilt reports on the extensive research and development of cars that drive themselves.) To the author, it is outrageous enough that we risk our lives daily because of ignorance, complacency, and distraction in the car (though in
Margaret Roark lives in
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com