I have been a bike commuter for 12 plus years. Most all were done a city rated by Bicycling magazine as one of eleven "bike unfriendly" communities in 2008. Naturally, I have been eager to find information which explains why things are the nasty mess that they are. Regionalism and politics don't explain everything (though they explain much).
This book works from the standpoint of deciphering the psychology behind the behavior of drivers on the road. It cites studies which blow away most traditional perceptions about bike advocacy and driver behavior. The crux of this book is that it really wasn't written about or for cyclists. Oh, it does mention us, and since the author, Tom Vanderbilt is a New Yorker who occasionally rides a bike there, there are some direct references to bikes.
The book actually delves into driver psychology and the thinking processes behind drivers. It also discusses at length traffic engineering. The traffic engineering part is quite an illumination in and of itself. One thing Vanderbilt points out is that the human brain isn't at all designed to process information while traveling at high speeds. Apparently, engineers choose to paint the dotted lane divider lanes on freeways much larger so that they create the illusion that we are going slower than what we are. An actual painted dashed traffic lane line is far larger than what most drivers realize. Also Vanderbilt mentions how roads which have a lot of visual clutter on the sides tend to make drivers slower, since their actual speed is registered by their minds.
He also completely exposes how cell phones completely rob drivers of attention far more than any other source I've read. In fact, he submits himself to a test at a research facility and fails the phone test like all the others. Another alarming thing he describes is how even if someone on the phone appears to be looking at the road, they are actually not percieving the visual stimuli in front of them.
Another amazing tidbit he reveals is that ALL drivers think they are far better drivers than what they are. He links this to something in psychology called "fundamental attribution error," which is how we our mistakes are controlled by outside circumstances, yet we see others' mistakes as the result of a character flaw. This is likened to drivers in that if they see a cyclist run a stop sign or not signal, we think of them as "reckless anarchists," but if we run a stop sign or another driver does (to whom we can relate) we see them or ourselves as responding to outside circumstances.
It is late, I am tired, so I have to abstain from sharing more from this book (I am busy writing my own book, so my fingers are also worn out).
It has been rare that I have read a book this good about cycling and related issues. Actually, it is quite scary to read this because it becomes clear that normal human mechanisms of relating with each other inevitably go out the window once someone is in a car. This is not over emphasizing the books content. I am only a third of the way through, and I find I have to stop to process what I am learning, since it is so new. I hope this leads to some real understanding in the bike community. I like the fact that it lays out so many facts which offer new ways of trying to create bike friendly cities.
The old factions and arguments really do get tiring and with this book, now I see that we have been deprived of actual scientific analysis of our situation out on the roads. It may be a good read for drivers, but generally this book gives me enough material that feeling of dependency upon drivers, of being dominated by their stuff goes out the window. It is sort of like realizing that an annoying coworker of yours isn't "firing on all cylinders."
I'd love to scan and share the entire book. Out of respect for the copyright gods, I will share but a few pages. I have been perusing books and the internet in regards to bike advocacy for a very long time, but I have found nothing which cracks the seemingly inscrutable codes which dictate driver behavior. I wrote a little book report for another site and I've repasted it here.
An Excerpt from and discussion about the book, Traffic
« on: July 09, 2009, 11:23:10 AM »
Vanderbilt describes in his book, Traffic how drivers lack a real forum to express their anger and other feelings as people do normally. There is no way to tell the driver who cut you off verbally how you felt about being cut off. This limits drivers to doing things like giving the finger, honking or to “act out” by trying to cut off the driver ahead of them who just cut them off. He states that when we drive, it is often impossible to send a message to the offending driver. He says, therefore, “…we get visibly mad to an audience of no one.”
He cites a sociologist from the University of California, Jack Katz, author of How Emotions Work, as the source of this study of emotion in drivers. Vanderbilt states that Katz learned, “that we are engaging in a kind of theatrical storytelling inside our cars, angrily ‘constructing moral dramas’ in which we are the wronged victims- and the ‘avenging hero-’ in some traffic epic of larger importance.”
He says, “Katz argues to create new meaning in this ‘moral drama’ and in an effort to create ‘new meaning’ for the encounter, we will try to find out something after the fact about the driver who wronged us (perhaps speeding up to see them), meanwhile running down a mental list of potential villains (e.g., women, men, senior citizens, teenagers, Democrats, Republicans, “idiots on cell phones”… before finding a suitable resolution to the drama.”
Vanderbilt describes this as a version for drivers of what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error;” in which we blame the actions of others on who they are, and in turn, “attribute our own actions to how we were forced to act in specific situations.”
Vanderbilt goes on to illustrate this by saying, “Chances are you never have looked at yourself in the rearview mirror and thought, “Stupid #$%&! Driver.” He says that psychologists theorize that this tendency arises as a possible means of feeling in control of complex situations like driving. He also surmises that fundamental attribution error based chastisement is easier than fully analyzing the circumstances which caused the other driver to behave as he/she did.
He also suggests this is the root cause of why even drivers make statements like, “West Virginians are horrible drivers,” and other assumptions based on geography.
Vanderbilt says that traffic research shows that when bicyclists violate the law, drivers see them as “reckless anarchists,” and meanwhile are more likely to “view the violation of a traffic law by another driver as somehow being required by the circumstances.”