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Archive for June 10th, 2009

The Road Less Paved

Eric Morris over at Freakonomics is soliciting entries for the “worst road in America” — my own submission would be this one, one of the Bush nightmares from which we’re trying to awake — while my latest column over at Slate looks into road work and its traffic effects (ahead of the stimulus-driven “summer of gridlock” road-repair-athon).

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Posted on Wednesday, June 10th, 2009 at 2:10 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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They Drive

Reading this piece from the New Scientist somehow made me think of the scene in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1978 version, in which a guy slams on Donald Sutherland’s windshield and says, “they’re here!”

But rather than a nefarious virus brought by the solar winds, it seems there may be a parasite loose on the brains of drivers — which, really, explains a lot.

Toxoplasma, or toxo for short, starts its life cycle in rodents. To spread, it manipulates rodents’ brains, making them reckless and more likely to be eaten by cats, which then pass on the parasite through their faeces. People can catch it from eating undercooked meat from animals that had contact with cat faeces. The infection lasts for life.

It can harm fetuses, but was otherwise thought to be harmless. Recently, however, evidence has emerged that the parasite can affect our brain. People with toxo seem to have slower reactions, while those who have had traffic accidents are more likely to have toxo.

Now it seems toxo’s effect on the brain may be limited to people with a certain blood type. Jaroslav Flegr and colleagues at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, had previously discovered that toxo affected reaction times mostly in people whose blood type was rhesus negative. So they monitored 3890 military drivers for 18 months. Those who were Rh-negative and had toxo were 2.5 times as likely to have an accident as uninfected drivers who were Rh-negative, or any Rh-positive drivers (BMC Infectious Diseases, DOI: 10.1186/1471-2334-9-72).

As the minder of both cats and an infant, I was well aware of toxoplasma, but had no idea there was a road-safety angle. Does this mean toxo screening down at the DMV, or merely higher insurance rates?

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Posted on Wednesday, June 10th, 2009 at 10:23 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Drunkard’s Drive

The WSJ today, in the form of the always excellent Carl Bialik, digs a little deeper on the ongoing contretemps between Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Century Council, which revolves around the issue of whether drunk-driving enforcement should center on the most intoxicated drivers (who, the Council argues, do most of the damage), or widen the net to include impaired drivers on various levels (who, as MADD argues, still do plenty of damage). Underlying the dispute is the fact that, after significant drops in alcohol-related fatalities in the U.S., the number has been steady for the last few years. Also worth considering is that, as the piece notes, “researchers estimate that there is just one drunken-driving arrest for every 80 to 300 trips taken by drunken drivers.”

A few interesting tidbits:

Paul Zador, a statistician at the research company Westat, has compared the blood-alcohol levels of drivers killed in crashes with levels of drivers stopped for random roadside testing during peak drunken-driving hours. That helped him estimate how likely it is that an extra drink will prove fatal. Compared with sober drivers, drivers at 0.15 or higher were about 400 times more likely to die in a crash. Drivers with levels between 0.10 and 0.14 were 50 times more likely than sober drivers to die in a crash.

But as Bialik notes,

These troubling rates, cited by the Century Council in its campaign against hard-core drunken drivers, might overstate the role of alcohol in killing heavy drinkers. As Dr. Zador notes, the same personality traits that lead to driving while highly intoxicated are probably tied to other risky behavior behind the wheel. These drivers are likely dangerous even before they have had their first sip.

And lastly:

In a 2002 study co-authored by Susan Baker, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Health, researchers drew upon an intriguing data source: interviews with surviving family members of 818 victims of fatal crashes.

The next of kin painted a frightening portrait of those dead drivers with a BAC of 0.15 or higher: 55% were described as drinking and driving at least once a month. But those whose blood-alcohol level was between 0.10 and 0.14 — and thus mostly wouldn’t have qualified as hard-core — weren’t much safer: 35% drove drunk at least monthly. “We shouldn’t simply be focusing on ‘hard-core’ drivers,” Prof. Baker says.

As an aside, there is something interesting, and of course disturbing, in the regularity of impaired-driving fatalities, particularly given all the random variables — who decides to drink and drive, how much, how many other people are on the road at that time, who gets caught and who doesn’t, what roads they travel on, etc. I thought of a passage from Leonard Mlodinow’s book The Drunkard’s Walk, an absolutely essential tome for the statistics-impaired such as myself, talking about aggregate versus individual behavior. “We associate randomness with disorder,” he writes. “Yet although the lives of 200 million drivers vary unforeseably, in the aggregate their behavior could hardly have proved more orderly.” He quotes Kant: “Each, according to his own inclination, follows his own purpose, often in opposition to others; yet each individual and people, as if following some guiding thread, go toward a natural but to each of them unknown goal; all work toward furthering it, even if they would set little store by it if they did know it.”

(thanks Jack)

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Posted on Wednesday, June 10th, 2009 at 8:28 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.

Order Traffic from:

Amazon | B&N | Borders
Random House | Powell’s

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U.S. Paperback UK Paperback
Traffic UK
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
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

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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