Smeed's Law: The number of people killed in road accidents rises at the number of cars on the road rises, but only up to a point. Then, the fatality rate drops.
Statistician and and road-safety expert R.J. Smeed says as the number of deaths increases, more people clamor that something be done about the problem. And the more cars there are on the road, the more people "grow up" and learn how to sort out problems with traffic.
In 1951, there were 60,000 motor vehicles in China. There were 49 million in the U.S. By 1999, the U.S. had twice as many cars as China, but twice as many people in China died in road accidents than the U.S. Why? Smeed's Law.
This is one of the revelations in Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and what it says about us) from Tom Vanderbilt, who is a guest on Tuesday's first hour of MPR's Midmorning. And guess who's live-blogging it?
Vanderbilt has uncovered some fascinating studies. Take, for example, the research into people who are constantly changing lanes. It found that drivers who do that in traffic spend more time being passed than passing. Those drivers give in to an illusion that you'll probably encounter this very day -- the illusion that the other lane is moving faster than overall traffic.
As always with these live-blogging things, write your observations and questions in the comments section below and I'll pick out the favorites for inclusion in the show.
Just don't type while you're driving, please.
Tom Vanderbilt is in the studio. Let's hear from you. By the way, the picture above is one I took on the way to work after reading in the Star Tribune this morning that roundabouts are hard.
Stay tuned in this space after the show for a slideshow on the subject.
9:09 a.m. - Vanderbilt is talking about researchers who installed cameras in people's cars. After a week, people forgot the cameras were there. I see all sorts of interesting acts of "hygiene" in other cars. People seem to think they're invisible in their car. Vanderbilt says people are "more likely to cooperate" if they make eye contact. But in a car people don't make eye contact.
9:14 a.m. - "How's my driving? Call XXX-XXX-XXXX" Do those stickers work. "The company car is the most hazardous environment for a U.S. worker," Vanderbilt says. New gizmos provide immediate feedback to the boss on how you're driving. Good or bad?
9:15 a.m. - Say what you will about PhotoCop, but someone was running red lights iin Minneapolis.
9:16 a.m. - Kerri comes clean. Says drivers in the lefthand lane who leave 5 car lengths from the vehicle ahead drive her crazy. Fact: It isn't slowing you down, though.
9:18 a.m. - Kate asks a good question below. Are "reserved" people more likely to "act out" on the roadway. Now who would she be talking about? I'll work the question in as soon as possible. My observation: Minnesotans do some quirky things, but they are not inherently crazier than other parts of the country.
9:19 a.m. - "Mike" calls to say people treat him better when he's driving his black sports car than when he's driving a van. Vanderbilt says driving a "Smart Car" is the urban equivalent of having a small, cute dog.
9:22 a.m. - Left-land hogs are getting grilled pretty good right now. Sen. Dick Day made this his big issue a few years ago at the Senate. The best he could come up with, though, were those signs that say "move over."
9:25 a.m. - Here's one of my favorite tests I've made over 16 years here. Drive in the middle lane of a highway. Drive just fast enough so the people behind you aren't going behind you. If that's over the speed limit, so be it. Just tell the state trooper I said it was OK. Now move over to the right lane. Guaranteed: the people behind you, no matter how far behind you, will speed up to pass you. Why?
9:27 a.m. - Things are feeling a little "anti-Minnesotans" here. The popularity of Vanderbilt's book, though, suggests it's not a "Minnesota" thing.
9:29 a.m. Caller: "The guy who scares me is the guy who comes down the ramp, to get on the freeway, and stops." Musing here: Has anyone ever had a driver's test where the inspector takes you onto a highway?
9:32 a.m. - I'll ask Ivan's (from comments) question in roundabouts in a moment. But the picture that goes with the Star Tribune story this morning on roundabouts suggests a really lame job of symbols painted on the roadway. Upside down triangles? What's that supposed to mean?
9:36 a.m. - We're having a lovely off-air discussion on roundabouts. We're waxing nostalgic about the Concord "rotary" in Massachusetts, which was a lot easier to navigate before they set up rules.
9:40 a.m. - Wonderful comment by Andrew:
Much of this conversation is perfectly summarized by George Carlin's observation "There are only two kinds of drivers on the road - idiots driving slower than me and maniacs driving faster."
9:47 a.m. - We're talking "the fedora effect" from Jonathan in comments. Vanderbilt says a researcher studied something like this. A researcher wore a helmet when bicycling and found drivers passed closer. "There are things going on out there we may not be aware of that are subtly altering our behavior," he said.
9:49 a.m. - We're talking merging. And, it's true, I'm one of those people who merged early. Then I saw a Good Question on WCCO a few years ago with a MnDOT engineer saying you have to go all the way to the last chance to merge, in order to merge. This is one area where we're too nice. Of course, this is when lanes decrease. I have no explanation for the inability to merge on on-ramps. I still think people use the "if I don't look at you, you're not really there" philosophy.
9:53 a.m. - Online question, does how people drive match how people act in general? Vanderbilt says one person suggested his book simply be called "Idiots."
9:55 a.m. - Shockwaves. Vanderbilt is talking about these slowdowns on the freeway that have no reason for existing. We could get rid of them, he says, simply by slowing down well ahead of them to smooth them out. But we don't. We charge right up to the "shockwave slowdown" and then stop or slow down, just perpetuating the slowdown.
10:01 a.m. - Off air, Vanderbilt says he finds it creepy when drivers on a highway drive right next to him, neither speeding up to pass, nor slow enough to fall behind. I call this the "he might be a sniper syndrome."
Good show. Great comments. Keep the discussion going today.
Be sure to read the NYT article on how we merge.
Tom is discussing the anonymity of cars and the way our actions change because of it ... has it been found that individuals who are usually reserved are more likely to "act out" in the "safety" of their cars?
This is sort of difficult to explain, but I'll try.
Imagine being in the left lane of a highway, and wishing very much to move to the right lane. So, you put on your right blinker, and see a perfectly acceptable gap in traffic. But wait! The guy (or girl) in the right lane decides to SPEED UP, knowing full well that your blinker is on, and that gap that was perfectly fine now does not exist.
This happens to me very often, and makes me want to punch things.
Also, I'm from out of state, and I can't say that I am at all confident that Minnesota drivers are taught about the blind spot.
I am from Los Angeles and I can't BELIEVE the way Minnesota drivers drive! They tailgate, they don't let you in, they don't know how to merge and they sure as heck don't know defensive driving. I am told this is typical mid-west driving. Is that true?
It's the only thing my husband and I DON'T like about living in Minnesota
I wonder if something along the lines of a load sensing speed recommendation, would work: radar guns detect load and speed, a computer analyses the optimal speed and displays it above the lanes. Can that improve flow and speed and reduce the aggressive accelerating/braking cycles of stop and go traffic?
I like to drive just over the speed limit in the left lane to punish over-aggressive drivers. I think it's ridiculous that people think they "deserve" to drive more than 80 mph.
This applies directly to my research around building on-line collaboration systems for coordinated research projects.
If collaborators are not able to see each other does this affect the quality of their communications and their levels of trust? Certainly, but how can we overcome those issues in this context?
Driving in Minnesota puts the lie to "Minnesota Nice." What we see in MN drivers is a picture of their true selves: passive aggressive.
I commute daily on a motorcycle. One of the things that eats me is when I am tailgated. It is downright dangerous for us. How are motorcyclist treated in other urban areas throughout the world?
I instinctively disbelieve people who talk about regional differences in driving. "Minnesota drivers" aren't monolithic, and neither are "New York drivers." Don't drivers just react to situations, regardless of their provenance?
We live close to the roundabout at 66th and Cedar, as well as the construction of the new one at 66th and Portland, and you'd be surprised how many people DON'T KNOW HOW TO USE it. People STOP in the circle, they turn in the wrong way, and they don't know how to yield! That's my peeve.
To be constructive, how can we educate the masses on how to use traffic circles (roundabouts) correctly? Any smart ideas? Maybe the guest has an opinion?
Why do we go slow in the left lane?
I took driver's education in 1973 in Minnesota and we were taught NEVER to spped in the left lane or any lane. Minnesotans are rule followers. I'll be the one waving from the left lane!
P.S. I have neve been stopped, had a speeding ticket or more than a fender bender in all these years.
Much of this conversation is perfectly summarized by George Carlin's observation "There are only two kinds of drivers on the road - idiots driving slower than me and maniacs driving faster."
I have always thought that the person with the least to lose (worse condition car) gets the right of way. My 96 VW almost always gets the right of way these days!
I am a bike rider and haven't owned a car in 8 years. One of my greatest pet peeves (among many) about drivers is that is is somehow no longer cool to use turn signals. It is extremely dangerous for a biker when cars do not signal because I've almost been struck several times by not knowing what a car is going to do!! Its a no brainer! Why can't drivers be more safe? It seems selfish and lazy. Also, cars should assume a bike knows you're there and not creep up behind them...we're usually just waiting for the driver to pass!! Most skilled bikers like myself are hyper aware of the traffic around them and just wish cars would go on about their business. (but while using proper signals!!!!)
I've recently moved to the Minneapolis area from Washington DC and I have beenamazed by the rudness of drivers here. People refuse to let drivers merge from on ramps, never seem to look in there rearview mirrors when they change lanes (are rearview mirrors optional on cars in MN?). Also, everyone seems to want to write for a car magazine, (They seem to go from 0-60 as fast as possible and then refuse to go any faster once they hit that speed). There are just too many other things to list, but I will say that I have seen more accidents here in three months than i would see in a year in DC, so maybe that says something.
Enough about the "knuckleheads" in the left lane! What about drivers who pass you on the right at high speeds? In other countries that I've been in (like Germany), this never happens and is considered to be crazy driving. My wife says it's illegal here, but nobody knows that it is. Is there any regulation regarding this?
I admit to being a caracist, that is I instantly judge drivers based on the vehicle they are driving. I see a hummer and I assume the driver is a string of four letter words. This often leads to more aggressive driving on my part toward that driver. I'll even admit to feeling a sense of satisfaction to driving ten miles below the speed limit just to annoy the hummer's driver.
I used to get angry at drivers ahead of me until my life's experiences taught me that not everybody is as fully able as I am. Maybe that driver ahead of me is on the way home from the hospital visiting a family member. Maybe they have an illness that forces them to drive more cautiously. Maybe they are 16 and a little afraid of traffic. Maybe they are on vacation and enjoying the scenery.
There is no way to know what is going on in the life of the person ahead of you.
Most likely they are doing their very best.
People should realize that they are very fortunate to be in the position to be in a hurry and able to drive aggressively and consider if they will want to drive when their anger level is different.
@MN DRIVER - you are a fool.
It's not just about speeding, it's about being able to pass slower cars, merge patterns, getting to your exit, etc. You are the person who causes traffic problems and backups. Congratulations on lowering the quality of life for everyone who uses the freeway.
Also, kudos on hanging your hat on a drivers ed course from 35 years ago. Surely nothing has changed since 1973. Probably not any more saturation on the roads now, eh?
My perspective on driving has changed quite a bit since I've decided to slow down in order to achieve better gas mileage. I'm often content to hang out in the right lane, or just cruise at about 60 no matter what highway I'm on.
I make every effort to stay out of the way of people who want to go faster (because there are plenty and I used to be one of them), but damn if it doesn't stress me out when I'm in the left lane, with blinkers on and all, and I'm trying to get out of your way and cannot get over to the right.
That passive-aggressive purposely slowing down in front of people in the left lane (even if you are doing the speed limit or even over the speed limit) righteous crap? You're not teaching anyone a lesson, you're just pissing people off who will then drive even more aggressively when they find a way to get around you.
This makes for an light happy 50 minutes of conversation, but shouldn't this topic be a page or two New Yorker article, not a couple hundred page book?
Or maybe it started out that way, like so many books do lately. Caffeine, Salt, Chocolate, Name Commodity or mundane daily topic here. Life is to short, read the classics.
I do hate those guys that slam on the brakes at the end of an on ramp though, and those people that set their cruise control at 27 mph on the single lane parkway.
I'm a bald, late middle-aged man who drives a red Subaru Forester. I've accidentally discovered a way to make traffic move more quickly--a hypothesis that I've repeatedly tested:
Whenever I wear a black fedora hat, it doesn't matter how fast I am driving in the right lane, people feel compelled to pass me on the left. This is much to my liking because in a very short time, traffic is moving at or above the speed limit. If I remove my hat, the entire system seems to break down with the person in the left lane camping out in my blind spot.
Has this type of effect ever been studied?
On 3 recent trips (in New England, up north , to Iowa) I've been TRYING to
drive 55 mph to use less gas. There is significant perceived pressure to
drive the speed limit or faster. In some urban situations I have not felt
I could drive 55. It seems like everyone is passing me tho I suppose
there could be other people ahead or behind keeping pace at 55. I conclude
that few people are concerned enough about gas cost to slow down. I keep
meaning to put a sign in my back window "Drive 55 to save gas"
[ No I dont drive 55 in the left lane much.]
I also TRY to drive the speed limit -- 25 mph on Minneapolis parkways
where passing is difficult. Clearly many people want me to drive faster.
@WASH DC GUY
I moved here form DC about 1 year ago and I am with you 100%! People here are the most inefficient drivers I could possibly imagine.
The first thing I noticed was the lack of merging skills, followed by the non-existence of a passing lane. It's fine to drive slowly, go for it. Just follow the rules of the road, and everyone can get along.
While this subject is interesting, it also serious, sometimes fatally so. It wasn't until my daughter was born that I started to notice just how unsafe modern drivers are, especially on rural highways. I decided not to be complacent about it. I write down license plate numbers from the worst drivers and report them to our county sheriff. I have also reported maniacal commercial truck drivers to the state highway patrol. Speed is the main problem I see. Slow down! It's safer and it conserves fuel.
I thought I read somewhere that accidents are more often caused by a large speed differential between vehicles on the road, not necessarily by high speeds.
The thing that concerns me about driving in general is it's hard to respond when people on the road do unpredictable things. That's what blinkers are for, so people know what you're going to do. I would love to respect motorcycle drivers and give them the space they need, but you can't be zipping in and out of lanes and between cars.
What about cell phone use while driving? Delicious irony-drivers calling in to this show!
I think the root cause of many traffic problems is that people just don't pay attention. I regularly have to anticipate what others are going to do so I can get out of the way. Just the other day I had to move into the other lane for a clueless driver who was merging, even though I left her a large gap, because she wasn't paying attention and would have run into me otherwise.
I grew up in Boston and my driving instructor told me 2 things that have stuck with me.
1. Always leave yourself a way out
2. Eye contact is a sign of weakness
We call them "rotary's" vs. round-a-bouts
I thought the republicans banned turn signals after the 2000 election because they were unneccessary regulation? I haven't seen one used in years.
Great article on this in the Atalantic called Distracting Miss Daisy
It's not just how we drive, but how we behave on bicycles and on foot. It drives me bonkers to see my fellow pedestrians step off the curb and wait for traffic to clear. Or to slowly wander across the street hoping traffic will stop. This happens a lot in downtown St. Paul and on Grand Aveune. It sends a really unclear signal to drivers, and is really unsafe. Bicycling seems to becoming more popular, but follows a different set of road rules that may not necessarily be either well-established for all cyclists, nor understood by drivers. Also, cyclists enjoy more flexibility with the rules: they can switch between road traffic and pedestrian traffic very easily. Again, this presents a confusing situation for everyone involved.
It's interesting that people get aggressive and angry even on the blog--well of course, it's anonymous.
Jeff, I'm not old. I'm not a bad driver. I just had the experience of losing a family member through chronic illness. I drove to hospitals, clinics, PT appointments. I drove well, but I had to drive carefully and pay attention to him.
You, who might have been behind me would have never known.
I am so glad for you that your life offers you the luxury of such frivolous subjects to be angry about.
What are your comments on cell phone distraction vs just plain talking to passengers distraction? I really wonder sometimes if a mom (me) behind the wheel, talking to children in the back, is as distracted or more distracted than she would be if talking on the phone. ...and if she is yelling at those kids...
I love it when you have a person regularly changing lanes and as you progress you eventually catch up with them because the seem to be changing lanes and always get caught as a lane slows down. The only thing they have done in the end is slow down all the traffic because people are worried about them.
It applies very similarly to driving.
Ever notice Chevy (especially chevy truck drivers) rarely use their turn signals? I've come to the theory that they (and mufflers in my area) must be an option.
In the first few minutes of this program today the guest identified the very thing that absolutely drives me nuts, no pun intended. So many people think they can get away with things on the road they would not otherwise try because of the anonymity the situation provides. Hey, if your going to be a jerk, have the guts to make it public. Otherwise you are not only inconsiderate and selfish, but you are also a phony!!!
Regarding merging, I find that the shorter ramps that are trying to accomadate both entrances and exits (such as between 35th/36th St and 31st/Lake St on 35W) are the worst. If we do the one on, one off, trade off, it works, but folks often don't do that. I tried to get on 35W from 35th only to be FORCED to exit onto 31st because someone in the right lane matched my speed no matter what I did to try to get on.
At a stoplight, pull even with the car in the lane next to you. Then, edge forward. 9 times out of ten, the car next to you will edge forward too.
PS> I, too, do not appreciate those who camp out in the left lane at slower speeds. But I don't think this rule applies to the Mpls parkways; these are not designed to be through-routes or shortcuts, so don't expect traffic to move much faster than the 25 mph speed limit.
Hannah: A perfect example of that is the 494/694 to 94 ramp in Oakdale/Woodbury/Maplewood. It requires cars -- at a fairly high speed -- to merge as if you're shuffling cards. Very poor. Very dangerous.
Here's one. I was in the left lane after passing someone the other day, and I put my blinker on to get back over to the middle lane. Someone to the right of that lane decided to move into the middle lane as well, without his blinker, and then when I legitimately changed lanes, he slammed on his brakes and started honking and swearing, complete with everyone's favorite one fingered gesture. Now, I had my signal on, but was I in the wrong here?
Re not paying attention as a root of many problems, I have to agree.
This does not relate to a highway merge etc, but rather to regular two lane traffic. When you are approaching a left curve with no oncoming traffic but with a car in front of you, watch their left tires. Far more often than not , they will cross the center line.
If you are coming to a right curve with a car approaching from a distance, watch their left tires. They'll usually cross into your lane, only to swerve back out (hopefully) as you become closer.
Yellow lines are drawn that color for a reason, so that they can be easily seen. Yet it seems so easy to not see them.
And in parking garages which do not have such lines, I cannot count how many times I have been going around a right corner and had to slam on the brakes to avoid a direct head on collision with someone making an extraordinarily narrow left turn.
The best experiment of course is to gauge oneself. Halfway around a left curve, look at where the center line goes past your car. Is it under your tires?
I bet you'd all be amazed.
>>the car next to you will edge forward too
Watch too in a line of traffic with a left turn lane. When the turn lane gets an arrow, the drivers going straight will momentarily jerk forward to start, only to brake again.
Can we read the lights people?
>>"he might be a sniper syndrome."
Or more likely, "I don't know how to use cruise control syndrome"
Not to detract from the fact that it is creepy, though
>>We charge right up to the "shockwave slowdown" and then stop or slow down, just perpetuating the slowdown.
Do the presentation of car commercials influence our driving attitudes or behavior?
I am thinking of the commercials where a car is zooming along a conveniently deserted two-lane road through a pictureque scene halfway between a small mountain range and the ocean.
Do we internalize an expectation that this is how our driving should be, and thus we charge right up to the slowdown because "we should be able to keep going"?
As a followup to the commercial question, is there a reason that the text size for the disclaimer "Professional driver. Closed course." is near molecular?
do you ever notice that the person in the wrong is always the first to "flip the bird"? I was crossing the street on a definite green light and a car nearly plowed me over. I pointed to the light to indicate that he obviously ran a red light and he proceeded to flip me off. wow.
You obviously are someone who is unaware of how to drive in the Gopher State.
My Dad taught me how to merge: close your eyes and pray that you make it.
The reason we have all these traffic problems are that these outsiders don't know the rules of the road in this great state.
Belated shout-out to Wash DC Guy and Jeff! We should start a support group. Bob, you can come too. My husband and I moved here from Silver Spring two years ago. There, we complained about traffic congestion (and the diplomat who sideswiped us on southbound 16th street during rush hour). Here, we complain about: lack of turn signals, red light runners, the rolling roadblock (a car in every lane, all going the same speed a la "is he a sniper?"), people in grey cars with their lights off at dusk, the bizarre inability to merge (IT'S LIKE A ZIPPER, PEOPLE!!!), and that guy going 45 in the left lane (apparently that is often, if not always, MN Driver).
Technically, the left lane is supposed to be for passing, so if you're going the speed limit or lower, you really shouldn't be over there at all. I think the left-lane issue is exacerbated here by all the places where traffic merges onto a roadway from the left, like along I94 in St. Paul. Who planned this? When you combine the merge-impaired with the people poking along in the "fast" lane, it's a miracle if you ever get up to the actual speed limit.
Regarding speed, I will never forget missing a question on my driver's test (lo these many years ago) about whether you should go the speed limit or speed of traffic. I got it wrong. The answer was speed of traffic, with the reasoning that if you are too fixated on the speed limit (and some people are, in a "Time for Wopner" sort of way!), you are not responding to conditions around you. This is true whether everyone else is going 80 trying to get to Daytona Beach for spring break or going 30 because of poor visibility. If you're still going 65 in either case, you are a hazard.
And do people really do things with the intent of PUNISHING other drivers? Seriously?!? C'mon. That's no way to live.
"do you ever notice that the person in the wrong is always the first to "flip the bird"?.
A few weeks ago my wife and I were walking across a crosswalk near the U when the light indicated that we were safe to proceed. A van making a left turn came right at us and nearly hit us and I simply gave the driver a dirty look and he simply flipped me off. This has nothing to do with MN drivers since the van had 'Sconnie plates on it.
A little about the driver; a 50+ year old (presumptive) father with his (presumptive) wife and kids riding along.
Andy, just because your rude guy had Wisconsin plates doesn't mean Louise's statement doesn't have ANYTHING to do with Minnesota drivers. I've seen plenty of folks with MN plates exhibit rude behavior, and some of them even do it IN WISCONSIN! I know you Minnesotans like to pretend that none of you ever cross the border, but we see you over here! ;)
Bob, just took the roundabout tour. It's awesome! And thanks -- I have never been able to understand those lyrics... until now. A true public service.
Why WHY do other drivers feel the need to teach people a "lesson"? Tailgating slower drivers, lane blocking, general road-raging.
I'm curious as to why people seem to think that by taking an aggressive action on someone else, the expect that person to go home and think "I'm so happy that anonymous person politely informed me that I did not merge correctly!"
Is this a alpha-male/female thing? Is there something engrained in our culture that makes us show someone the "proper" way to do something? I don't see this at the coffee shop or the grocery store, so why on the road?
I will pose this basic question. Why do we continue to manufacture automobiles that can exceed the speed limit? We complain about traffic deaths from speed and studies that say traffic flows the best at 60 mph etc.
Where in the country can we legally drive 100 mph?
I was wondering if your guest has done an research on buses - I appreciate the job that a bus driver has - tough! I get irritated when I come up behind a bus and can not figure out what it is going to do - no lights, no blinkers - stopping for pick-up, turning, stopped for a break, or ?
MN drivers are the worst in the nation. Period.
to kerri above at 9:16am. actually there's a quite an obvious, smart reason for leaving 5 car lengths ahead of your car—especially at interstate speeds, it should probably be more. clearly kerri is one those mindless tail gaiters, who doesn't quite understand how the system works.