Monday, 19 April 2010

Book Review: Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt, 2008

I bought this book because I work in the industry and I bought a handfull of books about driving a few months ago. Most are dull and are written by men who find The Highway Code exciting, have memorised it, and can and do spout large sections of it at you, if you ever have the misfortune to meet them. This one is different.

This book is not actually about driving as much as it is about traffic. It does touch on the cognitive processes involved in operating a vehicle, but most of it is about the movement of people in vehicles as a totality. It is about the psychology of traffic, about what happens to us when we as individuals climb into the driving seat of our cars and take our place in the seething mass of metal-clad humanity.

It takes this look from a variety of different standpoints. The studies he draws on and the people he interviews come from driving psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics and traffic engineering as well as a bit from entomology (apparently we behave more like locusts than like ants). It is exceptionally well-researched and the notes make up nearly half of the total pages. However, he still manages to draw all of these fields together into a very coherent book.

I'll give you some examples of interesting facts: human eyes were not designed to travel at 60+mph so we cannot take in enough information at that speed. Therefore we have to create shortcuts - we see what we expect to see. These shortcuts lead us to miss the glaringly obvious - motorbikes for example - because there were no motorbikes on that road in the previous 20 times we drove it.

Different countries have developed different driving norms over the years. In the UK our vehicles and road systems have evolved gradually over the last couple of centuries. Our norms are therefore entrenched in our society - this includes the adherence to some rules and the non-compliance with others. We are all generally aware of how we are supposed to drive and the perameters within which we may flout those rules. China on the other hand, has seen a massive increase in motorisation in the last 10 years and has therefore not had a chance to develop regulation, either statutary or societal. This is not just about driving, it's about society and how norms of any kind evolve.

I found this book really interesting and would recommend it to anyone who takes even a passing interest in driving and traffic. However, even more than that, I would recommend it to anyone who takes even a passing interest in the process of crafting a book, because on that count it is really quite exceptional.

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