Drivers: The Cause of, and Solution to, All Our Traffic Problems

Freakonomics readers know that cars don’t cause traffic jams — drivers do.

New technology might eventually eliminate drivers altogether, but probably not anytime soon.

Meanwhile, at least one driver has taken matters into his own hands, posting YouTube videos of problem spots on his commute to embarrass transit officials into making repairs, the Los Angeles Times, reports.

Are more to follow?


Jerome

I'm not sure the video will do anything. The people in charge of the roads know what they look like. They just don't care. How will recording the dangerous conditions make them care? Even the local media reports on this video have said it will take a long time for Caltrans to fix the roads. They aren't budging and they aren't doing anything, in spite of the reports. The video has not forced them to care about what they already don't care about.

David S.

A very simple rule is if you are not moving faster the the lane to your right (i.e., not passing) then you should move to the right. This keeps cars moving.

Charlie

One idea I have been nursing for a long time is teaching people how to drive in ways that would speed traffic.

I assume that traffic simulations could show that different driving behavior would result in better flow in high traffic situations. For example, when should I cut in when I'm approaching a lane merge?

If traffic engineers know the answers, they've kept them secret from the general public. I've never seen a TV show or public service ad that said, "I you drive in *this way* it will improve traffic flow from X to Y.

Marsello

Can't understand why people still choose to live in LA, you need at least 15 miles to get anywhere plus the traffic jam during rush hour and now $4 gas on top of that. Good riddance I'm out of there!

www.feedbacksecrets.com

Andrew

In some areas police are using temporary inflatable barriers to screen accidents from public view and thus prevent rubbernecking. This seems more efficient than issuing citations. After all, how do you distinguish a rubbernecker from an innocent person who is slowed down by the rubbernecker?

Will

Most people are bad drivers. Just like most people are bad at math, bad at arc welding or bad at any skill that requires a great deal of concentration and thought if they don't specialize in it.

Specialization -- get on the bus.

Captain Obviousness

At a certain point there are just too many cars on the road, and there's nothing you can do about it. However, even when there is not many cars, horrible traffic jams can result from people not driving smoothly. Every time someone just taps the breaks it creates a shockwave that gets worse and worse. People should have a goal of leaving enough space such that you never have to touch the brakes due to minor speed variations of the car in front of you. Look at this traffic simulation from Japan. It's a closed course with few cars, yet it quickly turns into dead-stopped traffic because people don't drive smoothly enough:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Suugn-p5C1M

mfw13

Aside from accidents and poor highway design, the main cause of traffic jams is too many people trying to get to the same place (usually from home to work or from work to home) at the same time.

Funny how all the discussion about the energy crisis centers around increasing supply, not reducing demand.

I don't think I've come across a single serious discussion about how to reduce people's need to commute, for example. Given modern communications technologies there should be far more people being encouraged to telecommute, and companies with multiple locations (banks, fast-food restaurants, retail chains, etc.) should be incentivized to move workers to the branches/stores closest to where they live.

Beryl

"Gaper's block" would exist even without morbid curiosity. If you're there just as an accident happens, you should slow down do that you can react to the newly unpredictable circumstances. Unfortunately, in heavy traffic, this slowing will propagate through the line of traffic. Further, I'm pretty sure that many state traffic codes require a vehicle passing a stopped emergency vehicle to either slow, or, where possible, change lane to avoid passing the vehicle closely. You may not know of these rules, but YOU usually follow them because you know areas around stopped emergency vehicles are unpredictable areas where doors can open suddenly and people can run into traffic. It's only those other people who slow down because they want to see bodies.

Unfortunately, slowing down when you pass an accident site, like slowing down when you see small kids playing with a ball next to the street, is good defensive driving. It's too bad it messes up heavy traffic so much.

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J

#3, the reason that does not necessarily work. There are guidelines (as expressed by #4) but not everyone follows them. Other ideas are signaling properly. Cutting across lanes without signaling often triggers braking behind that driver which leads to slowdowns.

But the single biggest improvement is better road planning (number of lanes, where the roads are, number of left/right turn lanes at intersections) and intersection light planning (light timing, changes based on time-of-day patterns, protected left/right turn arrows). The problem with this is the expense if often excessive, especially to retrofit old roads as you run into problems with eminent domain or just plain funding issues.

joe

I like the Drachten idea of no signs, no lights. 'Course what would the gov't do without the stop-sign income?

http://www.wikinomics.com/blog/index.php/2008/04/02/wikinomics-applied-to-traffic/

DJH

Here in CT a lot of traffic jams are caused by rubberneckers. You can have, say, a crashed vehicle safely off to the side of the road, obstructing nothing, but the idiots who drive by somehow HAVE TO slow down and peer at it ... often on BOTH sides of the highway.

There really is zero excuse for it. This makes it the most preventable cause of traffic jams I can think of.

The police should start issuing tickets for rubbernecking. Perhaps they could set up a fake roadside accident, mount cameras on the wrecks, snap pictures of the jerks that slow down and peer at the wreck, then send them tickets in the mail (just as they do with red-light cameras). Drivers need to keep their eyes on the road ahead of them and stop craning over to see if there are any bodies on the ground (face it, there rarely are, so why bother?).

Ben

I agree that people who take their eyes off the road in front of them, especially in heavy traffic, are a problem, but can't help but play devil's advocate a little here, or at least try to respond to the idea that "There really is zero excuse for it" proclaimed by commenter #1.

Aren't we supposed to learn from others' mistakes? Isn't it a valuable lesson to be able to see exactly how messed up you and your can get if you don't pay attention while driving? It's just ironic that our only opportunity to see such things is at a time that puts us in danger of another accident. I'm not sure issuing citations or putting up screen is really going to solve this sort of problem. Citations have not stopped people from speeding. And barriers are just another thing to look at and try to figure out what is behind them.

frankenduf

accidents cause traffic jams- traffic jams reduce speed- reduced speed lowers accident rates- therefore accidents lower accident rates- sigh, I never made it far as a logician

Stu

The place in the youtube video looks miserable. Hopefully high oil prices will stop sprawl and encourage urban renewal so people don't have to drive as much.

rob

I am not sure if education may maintain the flow of traffic. It'll help up to a point. unless we cut the number of cars driving on it. Naturally, we would be able to handle those slower (or distracted) drivers *if* the volume on the road decreases. Only answer -- public transportation and be considerate of the people in front, side, AND behind you.

Bjørn Stærk

Isn't the optimal solution obvious? More people should use public transport. The idea that you can take large chunks of the population in an urban area and give each of them several meters of dedicated space on these thin strips of asphalt, all of them at the same time of day, and not have congestion, seems pretty optimistic. Building more roads reduces the problem by mere percentage points, while compacting people into less space would reduce the problem by a factor of 5, 10, 20.

I understand that many enjoy the freedom of driving their own car, but where's the freedom in driving the exact same congested route to and from work every day? Take the bus to work, take the car anywhere else. Roads are a limited resource, reserving several meters of it for every person is just wasteful.

I know this isn't going to happen. I live in a city with a fairly good public transportation system, and still the roads are congested. It's not going to happen, but it is the optimal solution.

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ruel

your are lucky. me, i live here in philippines with the worst and most abusive public utility drivers. these kind of drivers are ignorant curs. they stop in the middle of the street to pick up passengers. they swerve anywhere. the reason a lot of fuel are wasted is because of these drivers that drive fast and brakes to a stop anytime they see a potential passenger. unfortunately, our populist politicians need the vote from the curs and the scum of the earth.

Dan D.

Amen to the comment by "Captain Obviousness" regarding leaving enough space to keep you from having to brake in reaction to minor variations in the pace of traffic.

I do this every day. I have a daily commute of 15 miles each way and on most days I won't use my brakes once. Contrast this to the other drivers who literally use their brakes most likely hundreds of times.

Most importantly seems to be the fact that you will typically never come to a complete stop when using this technique. I believe a lot of time is wasted accelerating from a complete stop, especially since you typically have to wait for the car in front of you to start moving before you are comfortable to start moving. Could this effect multiplied be a great cause of traffic delay and perhaps one of the great propagators of "traffic waves"?

This creates a very "fluid" driving experience. Even if it never "solves the great traffic dilemma", it is personally much, much more tolerable to drive in heavy traffic using this technique.

--Dan D.

>>> "At a certain point there are just too many cars on the road, and there's nothing you can do about it. However, even when there is not many cars, horrible traffic jams can result from people not driving smoothly. Every time someone just taps the breaks it creates a shockwave that gets worse and worse. People should have a goal of leaving enough space such that you never have to touch the brakes due to minor speed variations of the car in front of you. Look at this traffic simulation from Japan. It's a closed course with few cars, yet it quickly turns into dead-stopped traffic because people don't drive smoothly enough:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Suugn-p5C1M

- Posted by Captain Obviousness"

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mrs. manners

Heh Captain;

What about Manners- haven't heard that word too much lately- that went out the window with the holier than though equality bathwater. Sheer manners- too many self-interested or centered people on the road I'd say. It's so much about me, me, me these days- a bit more about you would do.

you wanna know how to solve the pollution problem- make it cost people more to pollute than to grow flowers in their garden. Polution tax and on evaders of their human responsibility- to our environment-coupled with expensive, green mass transportation- horse and buggy would be great- but an electric train would due- Let me teach from my home using virtual reality technology- can't you see it now- and while you'e at it- employers should take on the cost of transportation- if they want a pro- why not pay for it- high falutin law firms pay their lackey's to work 14 hour shifts and send them home in a limo- I would love a limo to solve my transportation problem- but I'll settle for a comfort-able train ride-

your friend

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