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What your road rage says about you

Author Tom Vanderbilt's "Traffic" aims to demystify driving woes and explores the patterns, etiquette, myths and idiosyncrasies of the roadways.
/ Source: Reuters

Author Tom Vanderbilt used to drive politely, merging as soon as he saw signs that his lane was ending, until one day on a New Jersey highway when he sped past the suckers in the slow lane.

Ignoring the glares of drivers, he cut ahead of other cars just as his lane ended, realized his aggressive move saved him time, and began thinking about writing a new book.

“I became a ‘late merger,’ ” Vanderbilt said, recalling his conversion experience. “My wife was upset at what I had done. I was so haunted by this weird experience.”

So Vanderbilt did some research and both discovered the benefits of late merging and came up with the idea for his latest book “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).”

The book, published on July 29 by Alfred A. Knopf, is based on three years of traffic research and explores the patterns, etiquette, myths and idiosyncrasies of the roadways.

At the root of many traffic troubles is the anonymity of cars, said Vanderbilt.

“You can be Mr. Lovely at home and then terrorize people on the way to work,” said Vanderbilt, adding that those alternate personalities are best tempered by communication, whether through a loud honk or a bold hand gesture.

Vanderbilt's findings reveal the extent to which stereotypes and fear play into decision-making. For example, he found that men honk more than women and men and women both honk more at women than at men.

“There's just a fear factor going on,” he said. “I tend not to honk at a large Cadillac Escalade with tinted windows that seems to have six people in it. But if it's a little old lady in a Honda ...”

Vanderbilt said some behaviors of drivers are changing as a result of $4-per-gallon gasoline prices.

“Everyone's making their own decisions,” he said of rising gasoline prices. “There's fewer vehicle miles traveled. We're seeing some speed reduction.”

But ultimately, traffic will not go away, congestion will plague roads, maverick drivers will blaze their own way and accidents will still happen, he said.

Vanderbilt suggests we could learn from army ants, which Vanderbilt describes as possibly “the world's best commuters” because they walk in trails and follow a well-defined set of rules and move in lanes as if they are on a superhighway.

They communicate, perhaps not with honks or foul hand gestures, and they cooperate as a community, he said. And the difference between their commute and ours is that their traffic flows, for the most part, without a hitch.