Saturday, 18 October 2008

Book Review: Traffic - Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), by Tom Vanderbilt (2008)

Tom Vanderbilt's extensive book Traffic explores the world of mobility using the private automobile, from the United States to China, India, and Europe. More broadly, he tries to uncover what driving behavior says about us humans: why do we expose ourselves to the risk of crashes, and how do we justify and rationalize these risks? How does our behaviour as humans vary from city to city and from culture to culture? How are we adapting (or trying to adapt) to speeds, forces, and stimuli that the human brain was never equipped to deal with? And why is it that the more safety is built into roads and cars, the more we find ways to increase our threshold of acceptable risk?

From the causes of congestion to the causes of crashes, the book briskly tours the science of traffic, making stops in areas such as the parts of the brain that are engaged when we apply the brakes, and investigating why high-speed access-controlled highways are the safest roads in North America but the least safe in India.

The subject of traffic can be highly technical. It involves road engineers, car designers, human factors experts, enforcement officers, and no shortage of academics conducting a range of research at universities around the world. Vanderbilt, a writer for Wired, Slate, and The New York Times, is successful in distilling complex concepts into accessible language. His writing style is smooth and breezy, effectively combining summaries of numerous expert interviews with the results of voluminous research findings to present the best available knowledge. He manages to simplify the topic without dismissing its depth and the range of variables that influences every element of traffic, and he has clearly invested considerable effort in researching and pursuing the many dimensions of the topic.

It is not a surprise that while Traffic explains many of the phenomena that we all observe daily on the road, the book also demonstrates that many traffic issues, questions and conundrums are still unexplained and in need of more research. Traffic conditions are inexorably linked with human behaviour, and as long as we are evolving as humans and interacting with each other across different cultures, new challenges will continue to emerge in our neverending quest for optimum traffic efficiency and safety. Vanderbilt deserves high praise for helping to raise the profile of traffic issues in our ever-changing global society.

286 pages, plus Notes and Index.

Published in Canada by Knopf Canada.

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