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Archive for July 10th, 2008

On “Distracting Miss Daisy”

A few readers have asked me what I thought of “Distracting Miss Daisy,” an article by Duke University psychologist John Staddon in the current Atlantic (the full text is past the jump).

To briefly summarize, Staddon, who has driven in both the U.K. and the U.S., thinks American drivers suffer from a surfeit of traffic signs and speed limits. “The more you look for signs, for police, and at your speedometer, the less attentive you will be to traffic conditions.” He argues this helps explain the superior traffic safety record of the U.K.

On the whole, I was quite sympathetic to the spirit of the article, which was lively and well-argued — indeed, it visits a number of themes and places mentioned in my book (which has, for example, a section called “The Trouble with Traffic Signs”). His line, “we spend a lifetime on the roads after we get our licenses, and we’re being trained by our experiences every day,” could serve as a summary of Traffic. And as someone who recently took, as an experiment, a U.K. driving test (I’m writing an article about this), I’ve got my own opinions about comparative driving culture in the U.S. and the U.K., some of which are in line with Staddon’s point of view.

There were a few points in the article I thought deserved discussion, however.

1.) He says that in his experience, people “drive faster” in Britain. This just shows, I suppose, how subjective experience is. I challenge anyone to spend a week taking black cabs in London, and a week taking Yellow Cabs in New York City, and report a higher average velocity in the former. Also, the default speed limit in England of “lit, urban roads” is 30 mph. I’ve been in U.S. cities, in fairly urbanized areas, with (unobeyed) 40 mph limits. While we’re on the subject of limits, he does not mention in his piece the widespread deployment of speed cameras and red-light cameras in the U.K., two technologies which would seem “designed to control drivers and reduce their discretion” — a charge he makes against U.S. traffic safety efforts.

2.) He rightly invokes “risk compensation” in discussing why safety improvements in cars do not often produce the desired results: The safer people feel, the more riskily they act. But a bit later, he notes, “a particularly vexing aspect of the U.S. policy is that speed limits seem to be enforced more when speeding is safe.” (e.g., a sunny day). But is this not a form of risk compensation in itself? After all, most crashes occur during the day, during normal weather — the times we no doubt feel safer. As Leonard Evans notes in Traffic Safety, nearly 85% of fatal crashes happen on dry roads. There’s no such objective, quantifiable thing as a “safe” speed in traffic — plenty of people have died driving at the proper “design speed” of roads, while many children have been killed in driveways by cars going under 5 mph. The only thing we scientifically know is the higher the speed at which you collide with something, the greater the physical damage, and greater the risk of dying.

3.) And on the subject of speed, I am skeptical of Haddon’s claim that “looking at your speedometer” is an important form of distraction on the roads. First, I’m not sure how much time is actually spent looking at speedometers (in one study, drivers were asked, after they went through a slow school zone, how fast they were driving, and their estimates were wildly low). The second is that experienced drivers typically have a lot of spare cognitive workload, plenty for quick glances at gauges — and any minor distraction from a speedometer pales with the demands of, say, cell-phone conversations.

4.) I was interested that he notes that he finds roads “generally wider” here, which one might think would make things safer. In my U.K. driving test, taken in suburban London, I was quite surprised to find how often, on small residential streets, I had to pull over to let another car by. In general, I found road geometries tighter (and I was driving a fairly small car). But this is one of the ongoing debates in traffic safety: Making roads wider means you have less chance to bump into someone, but it also means you’re likely to drive faster. The experiments in which traffic control have been taken away (e.g., Drachten, Poundbury) only work because they are happening at very slow speeds, where the logic of human interaction, and not traffic engineering, take over.

(more…)

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Posted on Thursday, July 10th, 2008 at 10:11 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage: krunde@randomhouse.com.

For editorial inquiries, please contact Zoe Pagnamenta at The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency: zoe@zpagency.com.

For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau: rhspeakers@randomhouse.com.

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Drive-on-the-left types can order the book from Amazon.co.uk.

For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
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April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
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Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum
Toronto

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013
BoingBoing.com “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Communications.
Grand Rapids MI

 

 

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