How Drunk Is Too Drunk to Drive?

Our podcast "The Suicide Paradox" featured sociologist David Phillips, who spoke about his research on copycat suicides (a phenomenon he calls "the Werther Effect"). More recently, Philips has been studying drunk driving. Particularly, he's been looking at drivers who are merely "buzzed" -- with 0.01 percent blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) -- and has found that the severity of life-threatening motor vehicle accidents increases significantly at BACs far lower than the current U.S. limit of 0.08 percent. In an email, Philips describes his latest research on buzzed drivers:

My current research, just published in Injury Prevention, shows that even minimally buzzed drivers (with BAC=0.01%) are 46% more likely to be blamed for an accident than are the sober drivers they collide with. This indicates that there is no safe level of alcohol for drivers: any amount of alcohol markedly increases the risk to drivers and their passengers. We reached this conclusion after examining an official, U.S. dataset of more than 570,000 car crashes. The findings have implications for drivers, passengers, police, judges, lawyers, insurance companies, advocacy organizations (like MADD) and regulatory agencies.

Do Game-Theory-Playing Traffic Lights Reduce Congestion?

That is what the headline of this fascinating article says. Here is a quote from the news report:

In lay language," [Samah] El-Tantawy said in a U of T news release, "the [traffic lights] act as a team of players cooperating to win a game — much like players in a soccer match, where each player endeavors to score, but at the same time considers the ultimate goal of the entire team which is winning the match.

According to the article, travel times were reduced by 26 percent, which is fantastic, and which is what matters.

This doesn’t, however, seem to have much to do with game theory. Game theory is about one of two things: strategic behavior or finding sustainable equilbria. But the traffic lights don’t care about their own private utility.  There is no sense in which they are actors at all, as traffic lights just do what you tell them to do.  In economic terms, there is a central planner who sets the rules which the traffic lights obey. This new scheme provides a new and better set of rules (which, again, I emphasize is great), but I don’t think game theory should get the credit!

(Related: see our "Jane Austen, Game Theorist" podcast.)

Can the Right Music Get You Out of a Traffic Ticket?

Aaron Pilkington, an officer trainee at Air Force Officer Training School in Montgomery, Ala., writes to say:

I was driving down the road the other day with a fellow trainee, pointing out to him that the particular road along which we were driving always has police officers hiding out and catching people speeding. Just as I said that, sure enough, we saw a police car pull out with lights on and pull someone over.  My friend, Bill, said that he wondered if the song "Sweet Home Alabama" would work in Alabama. I asked him to elaborate.

My friend, who is from Rhode Island, explained that a couple of years ago he was speeding and got pulled over by a police officer.  He said that the song "Sweet Home Alabama" was on the radio and that somehow the officer let him off on a warning.  Some time later, he was pulled over again and had the song on his iPod.  In the time between being pulled over by the police officer and the officer walking up to his window, he pulled the song up on his iPod and left it on loud enough to be heard by the police officer, but not too loud.  Again, success.  He said this happened one more time just a couple of months ago in Florida and that he now always has at the ready a CD with the song "Sweet Home Alabama," just in case he gets pulled over again.

The Nobel Prize in Physics and Traffic Priority at Roundabouts

The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was recently awarded for symmetry breaking and its consequence, the Higgs boson---a particle so well known that, according to the president of the American Physical Society, "[i]f you're a physicist, you can't get in a taxi anywhere in the world without having the driver ask you about the Higgs particle." Teaching the symmetry unit in my own course this semester, I couldn't help wondering about symmetry as I drove through an apparent example of symmetry: roundabouts or traffic circles.

Roundabouts use two complementary systems for controlling traffic flow: (1) Traffic in the roundabout has priority, or (2) traffic entering the roundabout has priority. The choice seems so symmetric, like choosing right- or left-hand traffic. In the United Kingdom, traffic in the roundabout has priority. In contrast, on many Massachusetts roundabouts, including one on my commute, entering traffic has priority.

FREAK-est Links

1. Al Gore is sued over sale of Current TV to Al Jazeera. (HT: Romenesko)

2. Economic reasons to become a vegetarian, graphs included.

3. The scientists and psychologists of the junk-food business reveal their secrets.

4. Columbia students can't resist stealing Nutella. (HT: AL)

5. How prevalent was famine cannibalism? (HT: JH)

6. First, traffic mimes in Bogota; now Lucha Libre in Mexico City doing the same.

Austin's New Toll Lanes

Traffic in Austin is a mess, mainly because the city is long and linear (east-west travel is made difficult by the topography). In increasingly long rush hours, traffic barely moves on either north-south freeway. To solve the problem, the city is adding one lane in each direction to one freeway, but there will be tolls on that lane. Moreover, the tolls will be variable — but not by time of day or day of week. They will vary with traffic speed, rising when the average speed in the lane drops below 50 mph. Pretty neat — peak-load pricing taken to its logical extreme. The technology that makes this possible is fairly recent. And it’s a good example of how technical improvements raise well-being — in this case, allowing those whose value of time is high to substitute money for their time and reducing congestion on the “free” lanes for the rest of us.

When Is It Inconsiderate to Press A Crosswalk Button?

I have no problem with pedestrians pressing crosswalk buttons when they wait for the crossing light to change before crossing the intersection.  Crossing lights and crosswalk buttons serve important safety function at busy intersections especially for disabled or elderly pedestrians who need a bit more time crossing the street.

But some pedestrians press the button with a conditional intention to cross the street before the crossing light changes if there is a break in the traffic.  One often sees pedestrians approach an intersection, press the button, and then immediately cross the street, before the crossing light changes. 

The pedestrian probably reasons a) “I have a right to press the button";  and b) having pushed it, I now see I can walk without inconveniencing anyone because there aren’t any cars coming.

The Traffic Mimes

Our recent podcast “Riding the Herd Mentality” featured Antanas Mockus, the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, who, among other unorthodox methods, hired mimes to tame the city's unruly traffic. The mimes ridiculed bad behavior and handed out thumbs-up/thumbs-down cards to help people shame bad drivers.  Some photographic evidence:

Long Commutes: Bad for the Heart

A new study finds that, in addition to being a real downer, long commutes are related to bad health. Conducted by Christine Hoehner, Carolyn E. Barlow, Peg Allen, and Mario Schootman, the study found that long commutes are correlated with higher blood pressure and bigger waistlines.  "This is the first study to show that people who commute long distances to work were less fit, weighed more, were less physically active and had higher blood pressure," said Hoehner. "All those are strong predictors of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers."

Traffic Pollution: A Silent Killer in the U.K.?

A new study claims that traffic pollution "is more than twice as deadly as traffic accidents."  Scientists Steve Yim and Steven Barrett "estimate that combustion exhausts across the U.K. cause nearly 5,000 premature deaths each year," writes Roland Pease. "The pair also estimate that exhaust gases from aeroplanes cause a further 2,000 deaths annually."  The study also points out that pollution travels:

Of the 19,000 annual U.K. deaths estimated, 7,000 are due to pollutants blown in from the continent. In London, European pollutants add 960 deaths each year to the 2,200 caused by U.K. combustion fumes.

But the international trade in deaths goes both ways. More than 3,000 European deaths can be attributed to U.K. emissions the authors say.

Yim and Barrett estimate that premature deaths are costing the U.K. billions of dollars a year, and suggest reducing black carbon and nitrogen oxide emissions and investing in public transportation.

(HT: Naked Capitalism)