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Archive for March, 2010

Country Driving

Photo by Tom Vanderbilt

I’ve only met one Westerner who had a Chinese driving license, but his story more or less echoed that of Peter Hessler in his fascinating new book Country Driving:

By the summer of 2001, when I applied to the Beijing Public Safety Traffic Bureau, I had lived in China for five years. During that time I had traveled passively by bus and plane, boat and train; I dozed across provinces and slept through towns. But sitting behind the wheel woke me up. That was happening everywhere: in Beijing alone, almost a thousand new drivers registered on average each day, the pioneers of a nationwide auto boom. Most of them came from the growing middle class, for whom a car represented mobility, prosperity, modernity. For me, it meant adventure. The questions of the written driver’s exam suggested a world where nothing could be taken for granted:

223. If you come to a road that has been flooded, you should
a) accelerate, so the motor doesn’t flood.
b) stop, examine the water to make sure it’s shallow, and drive across slowly.
c) find a pedestrian and make him cross ahead of you.

282. When approaching a railroad crossing, you should
a) accelerate and cross.
b) accelerate only if you see a train approaching.
c) slow down and make sure it’s safe before crossing.

Chinese applicants for a license were required to have a medical checkup, take the written exam, enroll in a technical course, and then complete a two-day driving test; but the process had been pared down for people who already held overseas certification. I took the foreigner’s test on a gray, muggy morning, the sky draped low over the city like a shroud of wet silk. The examiner was in his forties, and he wore white cotton driving gloves, the fingers stained by Red Pagoda Mountain cigarettes. He lit one up as soon as I entered the automobile. It was a Volkswagen Santana, the nation’s most popular passenger vehicle. When I touched the steering wheel my hands felt slick with sweat.

“Start the car,” the examiner said, and I turned the key. “Drive forward.”

A block of streets had been cordoned off expressly for the purpose of testing new drivers. It felt like a neighborhood waiting for life to begin: there weren’t any other cars, or bicycles, or people; not a single shop or makeshift stand lined the sidewalk. No tricycles loaded down with goods, no flatbed carts puttering behind two-stroke engines, no cabs darting like fish for a fare. Nobody was turning without signaling; nobody was stepping off a curb without looking. I had never seen such a peaceful street in Beijing, and in the years that followed I sometimes wished I had had time to savor it. But after I had gone about fifty yards the examiner spoke again.

“Pull over,” he said. “You can turn off the car.”

The examiner filled out forms, his pen moving efficiently. He had barely burned through a quarter of a Red Pagoda Mountain. One of the last things he said to me was, “You’re a very good driver.”

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Posted on Sunday, March 21st, 2010 at 8:02 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Kafka in Texas

Dan C. sends along this link to a case of a Texas cyclist who has been repeatedly arrested for the apparently radical (though seemingly legal) act of riding his bike on a road (and we’re not talking about an Interstate Highway here, but 30 mph local roads). Read all about it (and donate to his defense) here. As Commute Orlando points out, this sort of thing is not uncommon.

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Posted on Friday, March 19th, 2010 at 6:58 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Driving While Bogan

As I’ll be going to Australia later in the year, I suppose it’s a good thing I was made aware of a bit of slang: Bogan. Apparently it’s a bit like a “chav” in the U.K. I don’t know how the term is actually received in Australia, but if any readers want to weigh in…

And, this, according to the website “Things Bogan Like,” is how a bogan drives:

While the bogan generally engages in few critically important activities and has accrued a lifetime of missed deadlines, when on the road it is in an urgent hurry. If delayed by a stop sign, it will charge through. If delayed by a line of traffic, it will seek to drive in the emergency lane. It will reach its destination a full 90 seconds earlier than the non-bogan, and it will consume that 90 seconds, along with 300 other seconds, to stake out a parking space that is 30 steps closer to Boost Juice.

However, the notoriously poor coping skills of the bogan make it susceptible to losing its cool entirely if it finds that the traffic conditions are not to its liking. A key problem of road-based bogans is that a car makes a bogan invincible. Encased in a 1500kg glass and steel shell, the bogan transforms from an irritation to a menace. It enforces its skewed value system and desire for the x-treme by speeding, running red lights, and burning rubber, disregarding other road rules as it sees fit. If someone does not let the bogan do these things as it wishes, the trouble starts.

Just as it will do in relation to free speech, the bogan sees itself as entitled to break any road rule, but everyone else is not allowed to at all. The bogan will even reserve the right to object to other road users driving safely and correctly. If someone merges into a lane in front of a bogan, the results will depend on a number of factors:

1. How badly it wants to go to the shopping centre or nightclub strip
2. Whether the bogan is intoxicated
3. The presence of tribal tattoos
4. Any other obstacles that the bogan has encountered that day
5. The presence of personalised number plates
6. Degree to which the offending motorist is perceived to be Asian

If the bogan’s anger becomes moderate, it will scream from inside its car, and make obscene gestures. It is unlikely to realise that the other person cannot hear its profanities from inside their own car, but this does not deter it from pursuing this action with vigour. If the anger level becomes high, the bogan will attempt to overtake the other car without indicating, expecting surrounding cars to part like Katie Price’s legs. If it is not allowed to re-enter its original lane, it will emerge from its car in a blind fury. The alpha road warrior bogan will attempt to lure the other driver from their car with an elaborate roadside war dance, intermittently spitting and kicking door panels. If this is not successful, it will eventually return to its car, do a burnout, and rocket off into the distance, which is usually the next traffic light 100m up the road.

(thanks Alex)

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Posted on Thursday, March 18th, 2010 at 8:12 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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It’s Called a Side-”Walk” for a Reason

658304 from Bikesafer on Vimeo.

Via Jeff Frings, who politely tries to educate a driver (who’s clearly trying to overcompensate in all kinds of ways) on traffic laws. Later he’ll tell his long-suffering wife about some “idiot” cyclist on the road who wouldn’t get out of his way. It leaves one to wonder what actual percentage of drivers out there have a grasp of, say, more than 50% of the traffic code.

[The gist of the conversation is cyclist points out to driver that he's blown a stop sign and almost hit him; driving tells him to get on the f***ing sidewalk where he "belongs." Cyclist points out that that's illegal. Driver threatens bodily harm. Yadda. Yadda. Yadda.]

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Posted on Thursday, March 18th, 2010 at 7:54 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Birding While Driving

Photo by Wavy1/Flickr

To all the myriad distractions cataloged in the life of the modern driver — buzzing Blackberries, rogue McNuggets, squalling toddlers — I would like to suggest another: Birding while driving.

The twin gerunds, though mellifluous to the ears, jar the mind, like some wrong answer on an SAT test: Which of these is not like the other? Indeed, driving is, in many ways, inherently hostile to the life of birds and the activity of watching them. Roads sever and reduce landscapes, while the roar of traffic harms birds’ ability to breed. Driving is a fast-paced, necessarily fleeting endeavor that conquers space through time and distances a person from his environment. Birding is slow, quiet, contemplative, rooted in the natural life of a place. “Driving is not birding,” sternly counsel the authors of The Ardent Birdwatcher.

And yet there are moments when these two activities cannot help but conjoin. There is the sheer volume of roads in the world; one is rarely more than a mile away — as the crow flies — from a road. There’s the sheer amount of time in traffic, often on the way to some avian assignation. Then there is the puckish adaptability of birds to seemingly hostile environments, like the crows who drop nuts into traffic, watch as the cars crack them, then wait for the pedestrian walk signal to descend safely into the crosswalk and retrieve their bounty.

Certain birds flock to roads for roadkill, while New York City pigeons seem apt to congregate in the center of the street — where do those half-eaten bagels come from? — scattering at the precise moment a driver frets he is going to strike them (pigeons, it should be noted, see the world three times as fast as humans, so your 30 mph approach is slow motion to them). And as for the pair of osprey I recently spied, nesting in the highway sign gantry in the median strip on the busy approach to Sanibel Island, Florida, the road provided not only a domestic infrastructure but protection from would-be predators (not even squirrels can climb smooth steel poles).

I first became aware of the discrete pleasures, and not so subtle hazards, of birding while driving on a trip to Trinidad several years ago. I was on a trip with Barry Ramdass, an accomplished local guide, to the Nariva swamps, a birding hotspot in the center of the island. Every few miles or so, Ramdass, binoculars wedged in his Jeep’s cup-holder, would, in a sidelong glance, spy some minor disruption in a roadside grove of trees, or across a far plain, pull over to the shoulder, and point to a distant savannah hawk.

This ability confounded me at the time, but as my own birding prowess has grown, I have come to realize that spotting a bird on the road becomes as instinctual as spotting a traffic sign or a speed trap. Driving past a dead tree is a delicious temptation to scan for a raptor, while a bluebird house posted in a field triggers an involuntary twitch to wonder about its occupancy. An uncomfortable fact arises: The better the birder, the worse the driver. “Car birding,” notes the author of Down and Dirty Birding, is birding’s “dirtiest secret.”

David Gessner, who in his book Return of the Osprey admits to birding while driving proclivities, notes that “travel is a precarious point in the lives of both humans and birds.” Perhaps this shared sense of commuting — the word, we should remember, comes from the Latin commutare, “to change” —is the strange appeal of seeing a bird on the wing while my hand is on the wheel. I do not Twitter while driving, but I am hardly immune to the tweet.

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Posted on Wednesday, March 17th, 2010 at 3:14 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Letting the Days Go By

(graph by Texas Transportation Institute, via The Infrastructurist)

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Posted on Wednesday, March 17th, 2010 at 8:09 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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A Ramp All the Way

I was grooving on this almost Ed Ruscha-style illustration (“27 Onramp Configurations”?) in a new paper from David Levinson and Lei Zhang, “Ramp Metering and Freeway Bottleneck Capacity,” in Transportation Research: A Policy and Practice 44(4), May 2010, Pages 218-235.

The findings were sanguine on ramp metering:

Traffic flow characteristics at twenty-seven active freeway bottlenecks in the Twin Cities are studied for seven weeks without ramp metering and seven weeks with ramp metering. A series of hypotheses regarding the relationship between ramp metering and the capacity of active bottlenecks are developed and tested against empirical traffic data. The results demonstrate with strong evidence that ramp metering can increase bottleneck capacity. It achieves that by:

(1) postponing and sometimes eliminating bottleneck activation – the average duration of the pre-queue transition period across all studied bottlenecks is 73 percent longer with ramp metering than without;

(2) accommodating higher flows during the pre-queue transition period than without metering – the average flow rate during the transition period is 2 percent higher with metering than without (with a 2% standard deviation);

(3) and increasing queue discharge flow rates after breakdown – the average queue discharge flow rate is 3 percent higher with metering than without (with a 3% standard deviation).
Therefore, ramp meters can reduce freeway delays through not only increased capacity at segments upstream of bottlenecks (type I capacity increase), but also increased capacity at bottlenecks themselves (type II capacity increase). Previously, ramp metering is considered to be effective only when freeway traffic is successfully restricted in uncongested states. The existence of type II capacity increase suggests there are benefits to meter entrance ramps even after breakdown has occurred. This study focuses on the impacts of ramp metering on freeway bottleneck capacity. The causes of such impacts should be more thoroughly examined by future studies, so that the findings can provide more guidance to the development of ramp control strategies. It should also be noted that both types of capacity increases on the freeway mainline are at the expense of degraded conditions at the on-ramps and possibly arterial network. Therefore, without more comprehensive system-wide analysis, the findings of this paper, though in favor of ramp metering, do not necessarily justify its deployment.

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Posted on Wednesday, March 17th, 2010 at 7:39 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Pliers Mothership Invades Midlands

Again via Alan at Melbourne Urbanist, this Google Street View seems to capture what almost looks like a giant pair of pliers hovering above the town.

Did a Google tech forget to put away some hardware?

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Posted on Tuesday, March 16th, 2010 at 8:04 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Road Swill

Warning: Pub crawl ahead.

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day: Drunken pedestrian warning signs.

Alan of the Melbourne Urbanist sends along this link to the original Daily Telegraph dispatch; the sign is in Romania, but was apparently inspired by an unnamed town in Germany.

Interesting idea, though one wonders if the sign distracts drivers from the actual presence of sloshed revelers in the road; it also presume sobriety and attention on the part of the drivers themselves. “We must warn drivers that sometimes people who have little control over their actions can suddenly appear in the road,” the town’s mayor said. It’s just as appropriate to change the word ‘drivers’ to ‘pedestrians,’ to my mind.

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Posted on Monday, March 15th, 2010 at 11:01 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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No Character

I couldn’t help but see the ridiculousness in this caption from a local paper:

A plan to build on this parking lot, which neighbors said would destroy the character of Carroll Gardens, is off.

I’m glad they backed off trying to do a full build-out — but now how about amending the zoning to ban the construction of parking lots on Carroll Garden’s historical courtyards?

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Posted on Monday, March 15th, 2010 at 8:34 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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When the Highway Becomes a Runway

My latest Slate column examines this rare, but not as rare as you might think, phenomenon.

There are no hard numbers on annual occurrences of airplane landings on highways or streets, but a troll through the Federal Aviation Administration’s incident database shows that there tend to be more than a dozen such events in any given year (that the FAA knows about, at least). The events range in nature and geography. Mechanical difficulty ranks prominently in the causative universe. But pilots running out of fuel (“fuel starvation,” as investigators put it), whether owing to unforeseen flight complications or actual negligence, is common, too. One FAA report dryly refers to a plane that “landed on a public street to discharge a passenger.” And emergency landings can take place on deserted country roads, residential neighborhoods, or bustling thoroughfares. As the FAA’s Les Dorr, after looking through the database himself, put it to me in an e-mail: “Highway landings are rather more frequent than I would have thought.”

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Posted on Monday, March 15th, 2010 at 8:12 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The World’s Longest Street Crossing

Via the Daily Mail:

A frail pensioner who lives in a village with no pedestrian crossing has to take a 14-mile bus journey just to cross the road.

Partially blind Nancy Underwood, 89, walks with a Zimmer frame and is unable to cross the busy road outside her home because of the constant traffic.

If she wants to visit the Post Office or shop in Chideock, Dorset, she has to catch the Number 31 bus to Bridport three miles away before using a pedestrian crossing.

The grandmother-of-five then boards a return journey and stops off in Chideock on the opposite side of the road to her house, where she can safely visit the shop.

Not surprisingly, the town ranks rather low on Walk Score (25).

(thanks Peter)

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Posted on Friday, March 12th, 2010 at 8:55 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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PMAs in NYC

Here’s a job that you may not have known existed: “Pedestrian Management Agents.”

In order to create a truly world-class public space in Times Square, the Bloomberg administration and the New York City Department of Transportation have necessarily concentrated on pedestrian traffic flow. Sam Schwartz Engineering (SSE) was hired to deploy our Pedestrian Management Agents (PMAs) at four intersections in Times Square during the pilot program.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the notoriety of New York City walkers for seemingly using every available opportunity to cross a street regardless of whether cars are coming or not, our agents were able to increase compliance with walk/don’t-walk signals by 62%, from a rate of 57.5% to 93.4% compliance with the walk/don’t walk signals.

SSE has also provided Pedestrian Managers to augment pedestrian safety around the World Trade Center site, most significantly at the intersection of Church St. and Vesey St. This is the main access/egress point from the WTC PATH station, and by our counts may be the intersection with the highest peak hour pedestrian volumes in the city.

Our pedestrian managers all come from law enforcement backgrounds and bring at least 15 years of experience with them to the job. At any one time there is nearly a century of experience guiding pedestrians across Church St. In addition to their law enforcement and crowd control qualifications, all of our employees have received certification through the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA).

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Posted on Wednesday, March 10th, 2010 at 10:49 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Bikini Kill

A close shave on the roads of Florida.

A woman driver caused a pile-up after becoming distracted while shaving her bikini line.

Megan Mariah Barnes, 37, crashed into the back of a truck in the Florida Keys after giving her ex-husband the wheel as she shaved her private parts.

Barnes was driving to meet her boyfriend in Key West and told police she wanted to be “ready for the visit,” website WJZ.com reported.

This is why I don’t do fiction — you can’t make this stuff up.

(thanks Karl)

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Posted on Tuesday, March 9th, 2010 at 5:08 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The ‘Mozart Effect’ and Teen Driving

Reading, via Tyler Cowen, about this controversial classical music behavioral nudge in the U.K. — act badly and you’ll get blasted with Brahms — put me in mind of a way to make things safer for teens (and everyone else) on the road. Since BPMs often seemed tied to RPMs when teens are at the wheel, how about using the car’s increasing electronic integration to hijack the stereo when aggressive driving is detected, pumping in some Sibelius or Chopin to attenuate the raging hormones? (one wonders more broadly about some kind of iTunes ‘genius’ system that measured surrounding traffic density, car speed, etc., and used it tailor musical selections — Satie for that frenetic rush hour scramble at the Holland Tunnel, Brian Eno for those epic tunnels in Norway (ok, wait that’s a bad idea), rousing anthems (e.g., the Pogues) for long, dark quiet roads.

Which reminds me of one last point: The curious power (both as narrative and sense-memory) a song can have in the context of a drive. I once almost drove off the road in rural Maine at night when I first heard the plaintive, haunting voice of Townes van Zandt singing Kathleen:

It’s plain to see, the sun won’t shine today
But I ain’t in the mood for sunshine anyway
Maybe I’ll go insane
I got to stop the pain
Or maybe I’ll go down to see Kathleen.

When I hear that song today I still recall a glowing white line, the dark outlines of tall trees lining the road, glittering moose eyes…

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Posted on Tuesday, March 9th, 2010 at 9:51 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Stop! In the Name of Kim Jong-il

The choreography of North Korean traffic control is staggeringly precise, and fascinatingly eerie (and I recommend playing the above clip without sound, to spare yourself the inane commentary). Interesting that the cops are women — could this be an anti-corruption measure, as in Mexico City? There are more cars than one might think (and even Minis!) — are they all party functionaries?

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Posted on Sunday, March 7th, 2010 at 9:05 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Sign Posts

Radio silence here owing to an unwelcome combination of too much work and illness.

But I just wanted to take a moment to recommend my Slate colleague Julia Turner’s series on signs.

Signage—the kind we see on city streets, in airports, on highways, in hospital corridors—is the most useful thing we pay no attention to. When it works well, it tells us where we are (as when an Interstate marker assures us we’re on the right highway) and it helps us to get where we want to go (as when an airport banner directs us to our gate). When it fails, we miss trains, we’re late to appointments, we spend hours pacing the indistinguishable floors of underground parking garages, muttering to ourselves in mounting frustration and fury. And in some cases, especially where automobiles are involved, the consequences of bad signage can be fatal.

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Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010 at 2:53 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Best Thing I’ve Seen Today

A motorcycle that tows… cars. Perfect for crowded city streets and gridlocked highways, easier on city budgets, lower emissions, etc. Apparently this comes via Sweden, though the version here is shown in Japan. One issue, at least for highways: Where does the driver of the disabled car go?

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Posted on Monday, March 1st, 2010 at 3:17 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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DUI Checkpoints and Unlicensed Drivers

I’m glad this letter, by David Ragland and Phyllis Orrick of UC-Berkeley’s TSC, appeared recently in the New York Times. I had just seen something on PBS’ News Hour (by Lowell Bergman, of all people) that was framed to essentially make it sound as if California’s aggressive DUI checkpoints were merely depriving hard-working (and albeit not here legally) immigrants of their automobiles, and serving no other larger public safety purpose (just another “revenue grab” by states and municipalities).

Unlicensed Drivers: A View From California

Published: February 22, 2010

To the Editor:

Re “Unlicensed Drivers Are Caught in Net for Drunken Ones, and Lose Their Cars” (Bay Area section, Feb. 14), about California’s sobriety checkpoints:

There is nothing wrong if sobriety checkpoints find people who are “only” driving without a license.

According to “Unlicensed to Kill,” a definitive study of the problem published by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, from 1993 to 1999, an average of a little more than 8,000 people were killed each year in driving-without-a-license crashes. That’s 20 percent of all fatal crashes. (By comparison, D.W.I. drivers are involved in 32 percent.)

Compared with licensed drivers, unlicensed drivers are 4.9 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash; 3.7 times more likely to drive while impaired; and 4.4 times more likely to be in hit-and-run crashes.

Studies have shown that checkpoints help remove unlicensed drivers from the road and save lives. That is why our center applied to help administer the grants for the California program. We recognize the importance of balancing personal freedom with enforcement of rules to protect the public’s health. That is why it is so crucial that people understand the seriousness of driving without a license.

D.W.L. is a huge problem, and one that is growing. It’s time we raised public awareness and did the same for D.W.L. that Mothers Against Drunk Driving and others did for D.W.I.

David R. Ragland
Phyllis Orrick
Berkeley, Calif., Feb. 18, 2010

Which isn’t to say there aren’t some problems with the checkpoints and the larger traffic justice system. For example:

California law allows police to impound the cars of unlicensed drivers for 30 days if they endanger public safety. But at some checkpoints witnessed by reporters, the seized vehicles appeared just fine. And while getting unlicensed – typically uninsured – motorists off the road is worthwhile, the punishment is out of whack with the crime, especially when DUI suspects typically don’t lose their cars.

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Posted on Monday, March 1st, 2010 at 2:27 pm 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.

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For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

Upcoming Talks

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California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
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Eero Saarinen Lecture

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Delaware Center for Transportation

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April 17, 2012
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January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
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January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
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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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