Featured Reviews, VOLUME 1

FEATURED: TRAFFIC by Tom Vanderbilt [Vol. 1, #48]

“Redlights and Roundabouts”

A Review of
How We Drive
(and What it says About Us).

Tom Vanderbilt.


By Margaret Roark.


Traffic:How We Drive
(and What it says About Us)
Tom Vanderbilt.
Hardcover: Knopf, 2008.
Buy now from:  [ Doulos Christou Books $20 ]  [ Amazon ]


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 Delhi, cows in the median have the effect of speed bumps—people see them and slow down. The late Hans Monderman, whose theories Vanderbilt admires, recognized such paradox early on. Monderman posited that two kinds of space, that of the “traffic world” and the “social world” are at odds (192-3). Traffic engineers, valuing speed and efficiency, attempt to impose themselves, with signs and delineations, on the social world of a village, for instance, where the street is more than just a way for people to drive fast from one point to another. Monderman, when called to redesign a stretch of busy road that ran through a village in Holland, blurred the boundaries between the worlds of car, bike and pedestrian. The main thoroughfare was made to look more village-like, through subtle cues, forcing drivers to change their behavior to fit the needs of the town. The result was a dramatic drop in drivers’ speed.


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 Delhi you could blame it on the handwritten traffic signs).  In this way, the book functions as a memento mori and a call to stay awake at the wheel. In its exposure of the complexity of something so seemingly simple, it’s a reminder to open our eyes and be curious about—really see— the created world. Just not while driving.



Margaret Roark lives in Nashville, TN with her husband Brian and 3 children and works as a freelance writer and editor. She drives a Honda and, distracted by thoughts of donuts, recently got in a car “accident” on the way to Krispy Kreme.

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

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