Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Feeling safe kills

Sunday's NYTimes had an interesting review of Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic: Why we Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us). In fact, the review turned out to be more interesting that the book's first chapter, also available at the Times' site.

In fairness to Vanderbilt, though, it appears that's because the Times reviewer had the whole book to pick from, including the chapters where the really interesting gee-whiz research facts are to be found.

The central argument of the book and the aggregate point of all that research is about the psychology of driving and drivers, and might be summed up somewhat like a popular joke about CB-ers from a generation ago: The moment we get behind the wheel, our IQs drop about 15 points.

Nowadays, the cause of collisions, or one of them, is people believing they’re better drivers than they are. We base our judgment on the number of crashes we’ve been in, rather than on the number of accidents we narrowly avoid, which, if we’re being honest (or we’re being me), happen just about every time we drive. Compounding this vehicular hubris is the fact that most of the driving we do appears to be safer than it is. Driving rarely commands 100 percent of our attention, and so we feel comfortable multitasking: talking on the phone, unfolding a map, taking in the Barca-Lounger on the road’s shoulder. Vanderbilt cites a statistic that nearly 80 percent of crashes involve drivers not paying attention for up to three seconds. Thus the places that seem the most dangerous — narrow roads, hairpin turns — are rarely where people mess up. “Most crashes,” Vanderbilt writes, “happen on dry roads, on clear, sunny days, to sober drivers.” For this reason, roads that could be straight are often constructed with curves — simply to keep drivers on the ball.

This basic truth — feeling safe kills — lies beneath many of the book’s insights. Americans think roundabouts are more dangerous than intersections with traffic lights. Roundabouts require you to adjust your speed, to merge, in short, to pay attention. At an intersection, we simply watch the light. And so we may not notice the red-light runner coming at us or the pedestrian stepping off the curb. A study that followed 24 intersections that had been converted from signals or stop signs to roundabouts showed an almost 90 percent drop in fatal crashes after the change.

For similar reasons, S.U.V.’s are more dangerous than cars. Not just because they’re slower to stop and harder to maneuver, but because — by conferring a sense of safety — they invite careless behavior. “The safer cars get,” Vanderbilt says, “the more risks drivers choose to take.” (S.U.V. drivers are more likely to not bother with their seat belts, to talk on cellphones, and to not wear seat belts while talking on cellphones.) So it goes for much of the driving universe. More people are killed while crossing in crosswalks than while jaywalking. Drivers pass bicyclists more closely on a road with bike lanes than on one without.

I hitched a ride with a friend the evening after I'd read the article and I was telling my friend about it as she drove. As we passed a cyclist on a stretch of the suburban boulevard that had recently been rebuilt and so had state-mandated bike lanes, I mentioned that last bit--that drivers pass cyclists more closely on a road with bike lanes than on one without. My friend shook her head adamantly; when I pass a bicycle and there's no bike lane, she insisted, I always pull 'way to the left and give them as much room as I can.

I blinked--that was exactly the point of the research, that it's when drivers think they're comparatively safe that they begin behave more dangerously--but my friend, who's certainly no dummy, didn't see it. That conversation wasn't going anywhere, I realized, because Vanderbilt's point runs completely contrary to our intuitive sense of what keeps us in one piece on the road--as well as our opinion of our skills behind the wheel.

As an aside, this brings up a phenomenon that many Portland-area people will be familiar with: If you both bike and drive (as I do), and if you're honest with yourself (as I sometimes am), you'll probably have to admit that you do things as a driver that fill you with righteous fury when you witness it while on your bicycle--and vice versa. Although, as with what crime procedural shows used to call "split personalities," when one identity takes over we may have no memory of what the other one was recently up to.

But I don't want to push this too far into the bike-versus-car range wars, since that's not the point, which is that, as drivers, the safer we feel, the more risks we take and the more dangerous we become.

Remember that point about the psychology of drivers the next time you come to a four-way stop (whether you're biking, driving, or walking) and the vehicle facing you across the intersection is a GMC Suburban with darkly-tinted windows--and its turn signals aren't lit.

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