Culture | Deconstructing the culture of cars

Objects in mirror are more complicated than they appear

In the rush of our technology-driven society, it seems paradoxical to think that the chaos of traffic might provide insight into the complexities of the human mind. In his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt argues that the way we drive cars – and, alternately, how they drive us – can tell us a lot about ourselves, if we just stop and listen.

The word “traffic” itself elicits images of congested thoroughfares and the impersonal transportation of mass-produced goods. The scene of a crowded downtown during rush hour has become so vividly imprinted in our pool of cultural images that we often forget the human beings behind the steering wheels. We talk of “beating traffic” and “getting stuck in traffic,” rather than “beating people,” or “getting stuck” in them. Traffic urges an acknowledgment of the driver as an individual – Vanderbilt suggests this to be the first step toward improving safety on the road.

In fact, Traffic offers new, paradoxical ways of perceiving the streets we motor across without a second thought. Though often regarded as congestion creators, roundabouts can actually reduce delays by up to 65 per cent when they replace intersections with traffic lights. Road signs don’t always prevent accidents; by giving drivers a relaxed sense of false security, they may also cause them. Rather than alerting drivers, larger and more conspicuous signs ultimately distract them (as shown by an animated deer sign in Colorado which led to increased deer fatalities). Speed bumps are similarly ineffectual, as their main achievement is to irritate people, causing them to drive faster between them. Vanderbilt notes that more “human” and natural landscapes – such as large trees protruding between road lanes and the dozing cows of Delhi – may raise awareness more successfully than manufactured architecture, such as speed bumps, because they keep drivers on constant guard.

Multiple attempts throughout the world to increase road safety have been both wonderfully inventive and wonderfully strange. A Denmark campaign used topless Danish models holding speed limit signs by the roadside to slow down drivers. In England, residents erected precariously placed mannequins called “scare-cars” to arrest the driver’s attention. And in Japan, melody roads were constructed, on which the user can only generate a certain tune by driving over a specific route at a certain speed. Yet the most effective attempt may have been that of Dutch road engineer Hans Monderman. By removing traditional traffic features such as curb and lane markings, road signs, and lights, Monderman’s design caused urban streets to become more village-like. Through a creation of confusion and ambiguity, roads appeared more dangerous and drivers acted more cautiously. Rather than explicitly instructing drivers how to proceed, Monderman’s “choice architecture” subtly suggests appropriate courses of action; unsure of which space belonged to them, drivers became more accommodating.

Ultimately, Vanderbilt’s book is less about urban geography and driving statistics than it is about how the road shapes and reflects basic human nature, how traffic has become a way of life. Within the anonymity of our cars, riding alongside others we may never encounter again, the repercussions of our actions fall away as we engage aggressively with our nameless surroundings. In humorous yet cautious tones, Traffic attempts to answer the age-old question: are you driving the car, or is the car driving you?

Note: Jane Hu, in fact, does not have her driver’s license. Not even her learner’s. Traffic is available in hardcover for $29.95 from Alfred A. Knopf Press.