Tom Vanderbilt: the counterintuitive science of traffic


I’m going home and making that sign! Speeding SONS A BITCHES!

Love that he mentions our idiot legislators in Wisconsin and their hatred of roundabouts.

Yeah, I’m in Wisconsin and I constantly hear people complain about the roundabouts. The thing is by law any new intersection that is built the first considered option must be a roundabout. So we are going to be seeing lots more of them.

That being said I was hit in a roundabout in Oconomowoc by an older mexican woman who had NO clue how they worked. Insisted to the cop that she was in the right, even though I was already in the roundabout. She kept pointing to the yield sign and implying that it wasn’t a stop sign so she was in the right for just plowing into my car. Fucked up my irreplaceable Audi 200 20v turbo quattro in the process. So I should hate the damn things. But if everybody just knew how they worked things would be A-OK.

If you really want to get a good understanding of how traffic moves in waves, just start driving fast all the time. It becomes painfully apparent. The problem is almost always people driving in the left lane and NOT PASSING. Traffic starts bunching up. Suddenly your in “heavy” traffic. But if you drive like a maniac and go 100mph all the time, and do whatever it takes to get to the front of the pack and break through… then there is NO traffic at all for like the next five miles, until you run into the back of the next pack. Then repeat the process all over.

So the problem isn’t people speeding, its people who are driving slow in the left lane. Because of them I have to resort to aggressive driving behaviors like passing in the right lane, passing on the hard shoulder, passing on the soft shoulder, “pushing” the traffic, coming up hard on other drivers (really just scaring them into thinking they are going to get hit so they get out of my way - this doent work on assholes who never watch their mirror), flashing my lights, etc.

If I was a traffic cop I would do nothing but pull people over for driving in the left lane. I could probably write a couple hundred tickets a day.


I was in France last month, and came across a speeding sign that worked for me. It said “Vous roulez a 79 km/h” (You are driving at 79 Kilometers/Hr) … and a sad face.

I honestly can’t tell if you actually drive like a total asshole and have no self awareness at all, or if that’s supposed to be a satirical post written from the perspective of those who do.

Translated into a context of domestic life rather than driving, that might read a bit like this:

“The problem isn’t that I aggressively expect everything to go my way all the time. It’s the damn spouse and kids who have their own needs, leave wet towels on the floor, and don’t bring me a sandwich when I demand it. They force me to yell at them, constantly belittle them, shove them, break their possessions, and arbitrarily endanger them.”

Does that turn things around for you? Or were you already consciously translating the language of self-justifying domestic abusers into terms of motor traffic to produce that post?


I’m hoping that was a bit of performance art like Steven Colbert, otherwise I’d go for the assessment in your first sentence. Also why is the woman’s ethnicity pertinent to that story?


The way I see it, good traffic flow is a giant collective effort by everybody on the road. The more people on the road, the more important it is that everybody do their part. If traffic is light it doesn’t really matter if one guy is going considerably slower than the flow of traffic–people will just pass him. When traffic is heavy however, that guy will gather an enormous traffic jam behind him, snarling traffic for miles.

Of course considering a world where everybody tries to optimize aggregate traffic flow is just fantasy thinking. It’s like imagining an airline that didn’t have to deal with wind resistance.

Maybe self driving cars will eventually lead us to the promised land. I wouldn’t expect to see this in my lifetime however.

I also don’t share your typical Boinger’s love of roundabouts. Precision driving around a curve while making quick merges in places where a guy not following the rules of the road is going to be in your blind spot is just not fun. They always make me nervous, because merging into a guy is going to be my fault when the cops come, even if he shouldn’t have been there. Also you have the guys who wander out of their lane because they’re using too much brainpower reading signs and checking for merges instead of keeping their wheels between the lines.

This may be a novel concept, but you should consider driving at the same speed as everyone else. It would sure be nice if US highways were regulated the way the German autobahn is, but we aren’t that lucky so we have to come up with other options.

People trying to drive faster than the average will always be tailgating someone. Or worse, they’ll try to weave their way through a clump of traffic in an attempt to get around it, forcing people to use their brakes as they get cut off, which generates more traffic snarls. Don’t get me wrong, people who linger in the left lane are subhuman. But lead foots who act like blazing through traffic is their god given right are just as bad.

Sometimes you have to sacrifice your own desires for the greater good.

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Because she was an illegal immigrant and has no business driving if she doesnt understand our traffic laws.

Well, his point wasn’t that he must speed and that everyone going slow is causing the problem. His point was that if you DO speed, you encounter these traffic snares and can see what’s causing the problem. He’s right, and I encounter it myself despite driving at or slightly above the speed limit. When a driver is going 10 miles below the speed limit, he or she causes traffic behind him to change lanes. If that driver is boxed in by someone else going a normal speed, they have to wait to change lanes and then come up to speed, which will push people over into the left lane (if it exists). When you add larger vehicles into the mix, like tractor trailers that can’t accelerate quickly, you end up with bubbles of congestion on an otherwise empty road.

Assholes will always speed, but most people who go above the speed limit are not really bothered by drivers who drive AT the speed limit. They’re bothered by drivers who go much slower than the speed limit, especially if they’re not in the right lane.

Incidentally, roundabouts work not because they have fewer total accidents, but because they have significantly fewer fatal accidents. All fender benders suck, but that lady who just tore into a roundabout is just as likely to just tear through a perpendicular road cross, and in a cross she’s more likely to kill someone. Roundabouts cause people to slow down, and if people complain about them because they’re confusing, that’s exactly the point – they cause you to slow down and think instead of just drive on through. The only people who LIKE traffic circles are city planners and people who hate sitting at red lights for minutes on end.


Again - why is the driver’s ethnicity relevant?

Naturalized or born American citizens, landed immigrants, foreign workers with or without green cards, visitors on valid student or tourist visas - their ethnicity is completely irrelevant to whether they are competent drivers. If they have a valid driver’s license from any jurisdiction, and know how to drive defensively and follow the rules of the road, can drive safely; if they do not, they cannot.

And if they “resort to aggressive driving behaviors like passing in the right lane, passing on the hard shoulder, passing on the soft shoulder, “pushing” the traffic, coming up hard on other drivers (really just scaring them into thinking they are going to get hit so they get out of my way - this doent work on assholes who never watch their mirror), flashing my lights, etc.”, then they most certainly have no business behind the wheel of a car.

Are you referring to @pierrebalian’s post? If so, reread it - he explicitly says that by making it inconvenient for him to break the law by speeding, slower drivers force him to engage in further and more extremely reckless, dangerous, idiotically and criminally irresponsible driving.


And that’s why I didn’t start out bitching about her immigration status like my name was Lou Dobbs. In my original post I merely mentioned her ethnicity to highlight the reason that she didn’t understand the traffic laws…

You are calling me a racist and defending a lady who was driving a huge-ass dodge ram truck and DIDN’T UNDERSTAND THAT A YIELD SIGN MEANS STOP IF THERE IS ALREADY TRAFFIC in the intersection. I would consider that a pretty major impediment to safely driving in america.

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Lol, criminal irresponsible. You say that like that is something bad.

In a way it is forcing my behavior. People driving slow in the left lane are inconveniencing everyone around them, not just me. And usually they are totally oblivious to it. Fucking with their phone, too old to drive, distracted, eating, or just think that the left lane is just for hanging out in. There is great satisfaction in should passing and scaring the shit out of some asshole who just impeded you for the last half-hour.

Pass. Move right. Come up to more cars? Move into the passing lane, pass, move right. It’s so easy. Three land road? Left-most lane is always the passing lane. I had some dumb-ass say to me “OMG why are you changing lanes so much?”. It’s a car. Are you too fucking lazy to turn your steering wheel?

I’m not defending anyone. Also, I had not yet called you a racist.

You think being Mexican is related in any way to comprehension of what a yield sign means? You have no idea the yield sign is universal pretty much all throughout the world, and certainly throughout the Americas? You are not only a racist, you are an ignoramus.

There, now you can at least say I’m calling you a racist.

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Obligatory George Carlin video…

“Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

Marc Maron has a few things to say about Traffic…


If you’re lucky you will live long enough to realize what a jerk you were.

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