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Of Tea Kettles and Traffic Lights

What the lights tell you in Delhi. Photo by Haggai Shachar/Flickr

Reading Stefan Klein’s hugely entertaining and informative Time: A User’s Guide yesterday, I came across this traffic-related tidbit:

“Where do you have a longer wait: At a red light, when you’ve just missed the green — or in your kitchen, waiting for an electric kettle to boil water for a cup of tea? If you think that boiling water takes more time, you’re mistaken: both require an average of ninety seconds.”

This comparison intrigued me for several reasons. The first is that one rarely sees “traffic time” compared to other moments of time from everyday life. What other mundane acts of life could theoretically be performed in the time stuck at the lights?

The second is that very fact that we wouldn’t think of the time we spend at a light as being equal to waiting for tea; this in itself reminded me of studies I had seen in which people underestimated the amount of time it would take to drive somewhere, and overestimated the amount of time it would take by another mode. Traffic is a very time-skewing activity in general. When we’re moving along at a good clip, we tend not to notice any time signals (except for “on the hour” announcements on radio and the like); when we’re stuck in heavy traffic, aware of every vehicle passing us, we’re more aware to minor moments of progress and change and thus, as Klein argues, these trivial things add up to “a perceived time that seems much longer than what our watches tell us.” Which is why watched kettles, of course, take longer to boil.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008 at 7:01 am and is filed under Etc., Traffic Signals, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Of Tea Kettles and Traffic Lights”

  1. Murli Says:

    Only tangentially related: major traffic intersections in India sometimes display the amount of time in seconds it will take for green to flash again, the idea being that if people know how long it will take before they can move again, they feel more in control and more likely to wait their turn. That’s the theory anyway.

    FYI, there is no one standard amount of time (afaik) for how long it takes lights to switch to green. Quite arbitrary. Especially when you also add the influence of a traffic policeman who can choose to wave traffic on in the face of a red and keep greens waiting, cars randomly choosing to jump the gun, unseen obstacles in the road ahead…

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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.

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