What Causes Traffic Jams? You.

The next time a traffic jam materializes in front of you for no apparent reason, think about Japan. That’s where scientists have, for the first time, recreated “shockwave” traffic jams, in which one driver’s slowing down creates a ripple effect that moves backwards through traffic, grinding everything to a halt for miles. They say recreating the phenomenon successfully is the key to finding ways to defeat it.

Their experiment found that human error is a major cause of these most frustrating kinds of traffic jams (there are, of course, other causes). But if driver error is the source of the problem, don’t drivers also have the solution? Clive Thompson points to one idea, the classic “slow down and keep a constant speed” method, which seems to be effective in breaking these shockwaves. Any other solutions?


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  1. Roger says:

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  2. Michael says:

    Automated driving, obviously. They’ve already made cruise control that maintains a set distance from the car in front of you, regardless of speed. When everyone starts using systems like these, the shockwaves will stop happening. They happen in the first place because one driver doesn’t pay attention until too late, or overreacts to something, or maybe has to avoid another driver who is being reckless. Things like cruise control systems that maintain a set distance are the most likely to smooth out these sorts of shockwaves and thus prevent jams.

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  3. discordian says:

    For the first time?
    get out.
    I’ve done simulations of production lines demonstrating the same.
    Keep a constant speed is key to production line loading. No one ever applied this to highway traffic before?

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  4. Shawn K. says:

    I agree with Michael, but there are steps right now that can be taken to help alleviate the problem. If you think about it, the roads are always packed at the physiologically worse times: in the morning when we are still trying to wake up and in the late afternoon, after a long days work.

    I’m not suggesting Americans increase consumption of caffeine, but there might be practical ways to help solve this problem other than completely change the logistics of transportation we currently use and that could be by taking better care of our bodies so that we are more attentive and functional in these times.

    Don’t worry about traffic on the roads though, where we’re going we don’t need any roads.

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  5. jonathan says:

    If this is new then the new part must be a specific visualization because traffic engineers started looking at lag times in driver reactions as soon as the first timed lights were introduced on Michigan Avenue in Detroit.

    That was the era of time and motion study and engineers would use stop watches to time the lag in start up from a stop light.

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  6. Pat says:

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  7. Michael says:

    If traffic engineers started looking at similar problems that long ago, then they are not that good at solving the problem.

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  8. Marcelo Soares says:

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