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.