This is the first “book club” update. Read the introduction.
I only read up to page 102 in Tom Vanderbilt’s “Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)” before I had to return it to the Chicago Public Library. And since it was overdue I didn’t have the chance to renew it. I liked the book so much and I was underlining and making notes in a public book so I decided to buy it.
My used book arrived from Amazon and I wanted to tell you about one of the (hundreds of) interesting facts and findings:
It is a repeated truism, borne out by insurance company surveys, for example, that most accidents happen very close to home. On first glance, it makes statistical sense: You’re likely to take more trips, and spend more time in the car, in your immediate surroundings. But could there be something deeper at work? Habits, psychologists suggest, provide a way to reduce the amount of mental energy that must be expended on routine tasks. Habits also form a mind-set, which gives us cues on how to behave in certain settings.
So when we enter a familiar setting, like the streets around our house, habitual behavior takes over. On the one hand, this is efficient: It frees us from having to gather all sorts of new information, from getting sidetracked. Yet on the other hand, because we are expending less energy on analyzing what is around us, we may be letting our mental guard down. If in three years there has never been a car coming out of the Joneses’ driveway in the morning, what happens on the first day of the fourth year, when suddenly there is? Will we see it in time? Will we see it at all? Our feeling of safety and control is also a weakness. A study by a group of Israeli researchers found that drivers committed more traffic violations on familiar routes than on unfamiliar routes. (page 14-15)
The notes section is extensive. While not footnoted, the notes for any particular page are not difficult to find. The studies for the excerpt above are the following:
- Insurance companies: Claims Survey Finds There’s No Place Like Home – For Vehicle Crashes
- Israeli researchers: Women drivers’ behavior in well-known versus less familiar locations (article is behind an “academic paywall”)
- Likelihood to wear seat belt: “Studies have also shown that drivers are less likely to wear seat belts on shorter trips, which would seem to indicate a feeling of greater safety close to home” – example study from the University of Michigan, paid for by Toyota. (I’ve heard people say that they don’t wear a bicycle helmet on the short trip to the coffeeshop a couple blocks away, but will wear it on their longer trip to work – this isn’t very rational.)
What do you think of these findings?
5 thoughts on “Book club update #1: More crashes close to home”
I think there’s something to it. If I observe someone both in familiar places and less familiar places, I often see more risk taking behavior in the places that are most familiar to that person.
For example, I hear a honk from the alley and then see my neighbor driving out of the alley without stopping – the way she does every day. I might later see her pulling out of the driveway at the grocery store, after coming to a full stop and taking a good look at approaching traffic. The grocery store is a familiar place, but she doesn’t go in and out of there multiple times each day.
Or I get a ride from another friend, who rolls the stop signs close to home, but looks at everything more carefully and comes to full stops outside the neighborhood.
Is this true for everyone? I don’t think so, but I certainly see examples of it.
I appreciated the way that Vanderbilt took a significant amount of research from many sources and presented the information in a way that’s accessible but not dumbed down.
If one is interested in transportation, roads, cars, or traffic, this is *the* book to read.
The author was on Jeopardy! yearerday.
How did he do?