January 23, 2008

Traffic Sucks, So Help Make It Better

There are many reasons that bad traffic occurs, and many of these we aren't able to fix easily. Things like an overcrowded population, poor infrastructure, and outdated designs are issues that must be addressed on the city and state levels and can not be fixed overnight. There are, however, things that you and I can do as motorists to help alleviate the traffic problem. I think that if everyone followed some of these recommendations, even well known problem areas would become noticably easier to navigate.

I think that the overall goal in driving in traffic should be to reach what is called a Nash Equlibrium with the other drivers. Basically, you want to make the best possible decision while driving while taking into account the decisions of the other drivers around as well as your own needs. Let me give a very simple example.

(Please pardon my lack of graphics skill.)

You're driving down the right lane of an interstate in busy, but not bumper-to-bumper, traffic where everyone is doing pretty much the same speed, and a vehicle pulls up beside you on the on-ramp to merge into the traffic. It seems to me you have three choices here: 1) Accelerate and tail-gate the car in front of you so the new vehicle is forced to merge behind you, 2) Decelerate to allow the car to merge in front of you, or 3) Change lanes to create a vacant spot for the vehicle to merge into.

All of these choices are doable, but the choice that best brings the situation into a Nash Equlibrium is to change lanes. In the first choice, you are increasing the danger to yourself and others around you should something unexpected happen and you either hit the car in front of you or are forced to slam on your brakes, causing one of the vehicles behind you to hit you. In the second choice, you are causing the vehicle behind you to slow down (and any vehicles behind that as well), increasing the traffic for everyone approaching this section of road. While this option is safe, it is not optimal. In the third choice, everyone is able to maintain speed, and the new car is able to safely merge into the traffic lane.

This is a pretty common scenario, but let's add some standard variations on it, along with their solutions.

Variation: Your exit is less than a mile ahead, and you do not think you will have enough time to get back over in the right lane.
Optimal Solution: Choice 2, since you are able to safely allow the car to merge while maintaining your lane.

Variation: Cars are not driving at the same speed. The car in front of you is driving slightly faster than you, and the car behind you in the left lane is speeding.
Optimal Solution: Choice 1 becomes the optimal solution at this point, as changing lanes risks you being rear-ended by the speeder, but accelerating to match speed with the car in front of you allows everyone else to maintain speed as well as safely creating space for the new car to merge in behind you.

Driving, even if it's just down the street to the store, can be filled with lots of decisions like these, and from what I've seen after 10+ years of driving, most people do not make the optimal choice when these situations present themselves. When the majority of the drivers on the road are not behaving in ways that are in the best interest of everyone, this will cause traffic. How many times have you been stuck in a bumper-to-bumper situation, only to have it miraculously clear up fifty yards later? I've noticed that this kind of situation is created by a few people making sub-optimal decisions which then cause more people to make similar decisions, and it just causes a cascading effect down the road.

Several primary factors are at fault which contribute to poor decision making:

1) Lack of proper driver education. (For instance, in Maryland, you don't have to take a road test to get your license. You just drive around a parking lot.)

2) Selfishness. People (especially in today's society) are constantly thinking about what's best for themselves, even if it's getting just one more car ahead of the rest.

3) Distractions. The use of cell phones, MP3 players, Blackberries, etc all contribute to less than smart driving.

4) Lack of planning. From what I've seen on the roads, many people do not properly plan their routes for the trips they are taking, causing them to brake suddenly or cut across multiple lanes to make their necessary turns.

5) Being unaware of your surroundings. Many drivers pay attention to no one but themselves and the car in front of them.

As motorists, it is our responsibility to mitigate these factors and try to create a more optimal driving environment, not just for ourselves but for everyone around us. So the next time you're driving, try to consciously make better decisions that will help create a better overall traffic environment.

1) If you feel that your state is lacking in driver education, try attending classes offered by a private company. I did this before I got my license, and even though my teenage mind thought it was boring, I do feel that I benefitted from taking such a course. You can also get insurance reductions from some companies for taking classes like this.

2) Try thinking of others as you are driving. If someone needs to merge in front of you, then let them. One more car in front of you is not going to make you late, and it will better increase the flow of traffic around you.

3) Don't talk on the phone while you're driving, if it's avoidable. The same goes with playing around with an MP3 player or texting on your Blackberry. Unless it's a dire emergency, those things can wait.

4) Plan your route. If you know where you're going, this shouldn't be hard. Get in the lane you need to be in and stay in it. If you don't know where you're going, get directions from Google Maps or something similar. If you know you're going to need to make a left, but you're not sure where, at least be in the left lane.

5) Pay as much attention to the drivers around you as you can. I have avoided being rear-ended multiple times because I pay constant attention to my side- and rear-view mirrors. Just because you are driving smartly doesn't mean that everyone else is.

Imagine if everyone on the road did their best to make the driving environment the best that they could make it for everyone and not just themselves. All the effort spent weaving in and out of traffic wouldn't be necessary because traffic would be less in the first place. Obviously, these suggestions won't fix all problems, especially those related to accidents or population and infrastructure, but it would alleviate a lot of problems associated with day-to-day driving.


Courtney said...

I think factor #2 (selfishness) is the biggest problem. I've said it before. Some people will interpret this as stupidity, but I don't think that's it. People who make a left turn from the right hand lane, or pull forward into an intersection and block crossing traffic and other such travesties, they're not doing those things because they don't know any better. They're doing those things because they feel that they're somehow entitled to do whatever they want to get wherever they need to go and screw anyone else around them.

Courtney said...

Oh, and another thing. Last week when we had that snowstorm, there was a big accident on the beltway over in Oxen Hill. I was listening to the traffic reports on the radio, and every time it came on they had to keep telling people to stop trying to drive on the shoulder because the emergency rescue vehicles couldn't get through. I guess people thought that getting to their Mommy And Me playdate or getting home in time to catch Judge Judy was more important than someone else getting the medical attention that they desperately needed. Pure selfishness.