Car Talk: Nothing personal, but traffic is kind of an odd topic for a book. What prompted your interest?

Well, there's many, many books about food, or sex, or gardening - strangely none combining all three - but considering that some of us spend more time in traffic than doing those things, it seemed like something that might be worth a deeper look. But what really got me started was an epiphany on a Jersey highway involving merging strategies - not really the stuff of a Bruce Springsteen song, I know, but hey, when Bruce was sprung from his cage on Highway 9 there was a lot less traffic back then!

Car Talk: We're always railing against distracted driving, such as driving and using a cell phone. Is that a lost cause? Should we focus on more sensible things, like updating our wills?

I'm not sure what it will take to change people's behavior on this. Maybe a new slogan, along the lines of drunk driving: Friends don't let friends call them from their car. Of course, Chrysler's planning to put Internet access in its cars soon - so maybe at least you can go to wills.com while you're driving.

Car Talk: What was biggest surprise you got when researching this book?

Probably that there was so much research out there that hadn't really made it to the general public. I mean, there are people whose careers are devoted to off-ramps. As Roy Blount Jr. once said, "fish can't see anything funny about water," and I suppose it's hard for a lot of drivers to step away from traffic a bit and think about how strange it all is, how much mystery there is.

Car Talk: You write that most accidents happen on good roads, during fine weather. How do you make that situation safer?

I think we need "good weather driving alerts." I mean, you always hear of crashes being blamed on the weather, when the weather is bad, but no one thinks twice about those sunny days...

'Fess up! Ever been in an accident?

Yes. The first was a classic teenaged moment of stupidity. I was fiddling with the radio knobs, and when I looked back up the traffic had stopped - I hit a boat on a trailer. Luckily no one was on board.

Another time a guy waved me through a stopped lane of traffic, and I was so excited by his generosity I didn't pay so much attention to the next lane, in which someone was moving at a good clip. Again, no one was hurt, but I did get to see that curious part of the rental car lot where they put all the wrecked cars. Mine was in the "serious damage" section.

Car Talk: What are your three recommendations to make driving safer?

  1. Don't drive. Every new driver that comes to the road raises the crash risk for everyone else - and raises insurance rates.
  2. Get rid of car insurance. People would arguably act more safely if they knew the bill was coming entirely out of their own pocket.
  3. Don't tailgate. This is obvious but you wouldn't know it from watching traffic behavior. Even if you think you can stop in time, by tailgating you're reducing the reaction time available to the yahoo behind you talking on the cell-phone. Do you really want to trust the person behind you to be able to stop on a dime?

Car Talk: What's the biggest myth about driving today? Are there things we all do behind the wheel that we assume are entirely safe, but lead to accidents?

That "speed limits" are more of a problem than speed. We know, scientifically, that higher speeds lower one's chances of surviving a crash, and we also have pretty good evidence that higher speeds increase the risk of getting in a crash. Just as we all think we are "good drivers," we all think we know the proper "safe" speeds at which to drive. We know this from "experience," but traffic is not like tic-tac-toe: There's lots of different outcomes. The one place I know of in the U.S. that has a lot of cars but has not seen a fatality this century is Sanibel Island, Fla. The maximum speed limit is 35 mph.

Car Talk: Do you agree with the conventional wisdom, that how you drive is a reflection of your personality?

Yes, this is what the sociologists Tillman and Hobbs (no, that's not the cartoon) referred to as "a man drives as he lives." Unfortunately, my personality is "male," and that seems to preordain me to take more risk.

Car Talk: It's year 2030. You get in your car to drive to work. Assuming, that is, there's still fuel. What do you think the major changes to the experience will be? Fewer cars, thanks to pricey gas? Massive multi-tasking? Cars that "talk" to each other to prevent accidents? Or, Mel Gibson with a rocket launcher, prowling the interstates for fuel?

Well, I'd rather have Mel Gibson driving on the post-apocalyptic wastelands of Australia than in Malibu. But seriously, I do think we need vehicles that think for themselves, use renewable resources, and could even jump over obstacles in the road - oh, wait, I've just described horses.

Car Talk: Will you drive Tommy to work? He's had a number of fender benders.

Absolutely - if only so I can use the HOV lane!



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Share your thoughts about Traffic the book -- and the harsh daily reality.