Geranium Farm Home     Who's Who on the Farm     The Almost Daily eMo     Subscriptions     Coming Events     Links
Hodgepodge     More or Less Church     Ways of the World     Father Matthew     A Few Good Writers     Bookstore
Light a Prayer Candle     Message Board     Donations     Gifts For Life     Pennies From Heaven     Live Chat

Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Saturday, August 23, 2008


On May 24, a 16-year-old girl was killed in a car wreck on Interstate 10 near Redlands, California. According to information appearing last weekend on AOL's "Propeller" site and on, the girl had been drinking and was speeding – sad, but these days unremarkable circumstances. At the same time, the incident received publicity, spurred by the girl's mother, because the accident investigation shows another significant factor: moments before, she had been texting with some friends. Her cell phone was found open on the floor of the car, next to her feet. Her grieving mother thought we should all know that. Indeed.

We noticed this news because of some specific driving we do, regular trips the full length of New York's infamous "Long Island Expressway" from Queens in New York City to Riverhead, a gateway to the Hamptons. "Road rage" and unsteady drivers on cell phones populate the road on nearly every trip we take. Surely you who commute on freeways experience these driving conditions on an almost daily basis.

Others are noticing too, and one person, journalist Tom Vanderbilt, has researched our current driving habits and written them up in a brand-new book, called, appropriately, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)*. Economists are reading this book because Vanderbilt talks about these issues in terms of the incentives we encounter on the road and how we react to them, an "economic approach", if you will. This is an interesting perspective and we'll pursue it further. But the text is above all a hugely cautionary tale about us as drivers, and today, just ahead of the last week of summer vacation and Labor Day Weekend, we want to highlight a couple of his points, which are driven home by the accident story cited above.

Driving is the very definition of "multi-tasking": watching the road, keeping track of your speed, changing stations on the radio, noticing the pedestrian stepping off the curb in mid-block. How we respond in such complex situations was tested in a seemingly unrelated experiment. Psychologists had some people watch a simple game in which basketball players stood in a circle and passed a ball to one another; half the players wore white uniforms and half wore black. The viewers were told to count the number of times the basketball was passed; some people were also asked to specify the type of pass, a bounce or just in the air. In the midst of this exercise, a gorilla walked through the circle of basketball players. Only half of the people watching saw the gorilla. Half did not.

"In driving", Vanderbilt writes, "we do not do such things as tally basketball passes. Still there may have been times when you were concentrating so much on looking for a parking spot that you did not notice a stop sign; or you might have almost hit a cyclist because she was riding against traffic, violating your sense of what you expected to see. And there is another activity, one that we increasingly often indulge in while driving, that closely resembles that very specific act of counting basketball passes: talking on a cell phone."

To say nothing of texting.

What about "road rage"? Vanderbilt helps us understand why it occurs in our driving culture, but unfortunately there don't seem to be easy ways to counter it. His ideas are new to me, but they shouldn't be; they make excellent sense, especially in our over-identified, self-expressive culture.

We get mad on the road because we lose our identity and we are not able to communicate with other drivers. The car or SUV we drive is surely a symbol of our own self-image and we have to have the vehicle display that personality because we ourselves are hidden inside it. No one can see us or hear us or talk to us. It's frustrating to be relegated to personal anonymity, so we drive a flashy or showy car and we drive it in flashy or showy ways. We spend nearly all of the time looking into the rear end of the vehicle ahead, a position elsewhere in life that is associated with subordination. So we want and try to get out ahead.

It's exasperating when the guy passing you cuts you off, and you can't reply. Or when people honk at you because you didn't leap forward the split second that the light turned green, and you can't argue back. Vanderbilt mentions the "informal signals" we use to try to communicate; sometimes these get a message across, but just as often or more, they are badly twisted in translation. Which only adds to everyone's frustration. And brings on more erratic, position-establishing maneuvers. "I'm in front." or "Down in front." or "Take that, you #$%^%!!"

Once in a great while, in a totally confused situation, several drivers will realize that if they alternate-merge, everybody will move better. Such reciprocity is rare, but extremely helpful. Self-sacrifice and patience are virtues in driving as in any other facet of life.

Traffic has much more about, well, traffic. How the Los Angeles Department of Transportation manages traffic lights all over the city on Oscar Night so all 800 limousines can arrive at the Red Carpet on schedule. How new technologies are assisting the chaotic driving tangles in Mexico City, Rome and – perhaps most complicated of all – New Delhi. Who's at greatest risk for "accidents" – which aren't really "accidents", are they? Why more lanes often don't help traffic move more smoothly, they only make more traffic.

A couple of the newspaper reviews of the book suggest that it should be required reading for anyone about to take a driver's test or committing a moving violation or simply renewing their insurance. Probably so. The multi-faceted warning and explanations will make you more conscious of your own driving, every day. A telling phrase is the title of Chapter 2, "Why You're Not As Good a Driver as You Think You Are".

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to the Long Island Expressway!

+ + + + +

*Tom Vanderbilt. Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What Is Says About Us). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2008.

It's Number 10 on the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction list this week (August 24). Available from VivaBooks (click here), Amazon and other booksellers.

Vanderbilt blogs on People familiar with Brooklyn might recognize pictures of the BQE (Brooklyn-Queens Expressway) on the home page.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Copyright © 2003-Present Geranium Farm - All rights reserved.
Reproduction of any materials on this web site for any purpose
other than personal use without written consent is prohibited.