Book Review: 2008 Texas Book Festival

Understanding the sociological mechanics behind traffic problems and why they exist everywhere

2008 Texas Book Festival

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)

by Tom Vanderbilt
Alfred A. Knopf, 416 pp., $24.95

People found humor in the opening traffic scene of 1999's Office Space because of the adage "It's so true!" You leave your house 10 minutes earlier than usual to get to work 10 minutes late, and during this 20-mile, 64-minute commute, you've witnessed three fatal accidents, almost gotten into four, and the whole time the other lane was moving faster, no matter how many times you switched lanes.

For journalist Tom Vanderbilt, traffic used to be an annoying fact of life, something that left his mind once his key was out of the ignition or his bike locked up to a pole. Then one day he spontaneously decided to ignore the "Merge Now" sign on a soon-to-be-one-lane highway and zoomed past all of the obedient early mergers, eventually merging into the lane far ahead of the congestion. Questioning his own morality, Vanderbilt embarked on a worldwide road trip destined to understand the sociological mechanics behind traffic problems and why they exist everywhere. Vanderbilt's lengthy cultural analysis is a result of extensive research and soul-searching. He interviewed traffic engineers and NASCAR racers, rode in robot cars, and hung out in animal laboratories to learn why various species of locusts and ants never get into traffic jams.

Predictably, Vanderbilt's quest produces more questions than it answers, but throughout, it's a fascinating ride. Why is it that the anonymity of being inside a car is an automatic license for rudeness, racism, and sexism? Why do we call it an "accident" when a drunk person driving at 80 mph in a 30 zone slams into another car? But above all, are all late mergers going to hell? For this question, consider the ants: They don't seem to have a problem letting a brother pass in order to improve the flow of traffic.


Sunday, Nov. 2, 12-12:45pm
Capitol Extension Room E2.010

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Traffic
Early Data Shows Progress at Four High-Crash Intersections
Early Data Shows Progress at Four High-Crash Intersections
Number of accidents dramatically drops at intersections outfitted with new safety controls

Nina Hernandez, Dec. 29, 2017

More Book Reviews
<i>Presidio</i> by Randy Kennedy
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
For his debut novel, Kennedy creates a road story that portrays the harsh West Texas terrain beautifully and fills it with sympathetic characters.

Jay Trachtenberg, Sept. 14, 2018

Hunting the Golden State Killer in <i>I'll Be Gone in the Dark</i>
Hunting the Golden State Killer in I'll Be Gone in the Dark
How Michelle McNamara tracked a killer before her untimely death

Jonelle Seitz, July 20, 2018

More by Sofia Resnick
Gloves Off
Gloves Off
The perils of being a female blogger

March 6, 2009

Cultural Studies
Sex Ed
Gifting books without boundaries

Dec. 12, 2008

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Texas Book Festival, traffic

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle