traffic

The Civic turned a week old yesterday and today the odometer hit 424 miles.

I drive a lot, it seems. I don’t think I drove much more last week than I have been driving this year, but I thought about driving a lot more. I enjoyed my new car but I also feared driving it—keeping it new and fresh and un-dinged (its first acquired on Saturday in Silverlake from an invasive curb), but mostly, I feared keeping it—and me—un-accidented.

As part of my current obsession with driving and traffic, I recently finished the aforementioned book of “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us).” I hate to resort to a description like this, but I don’t how how else to express how relevant the book is—we should be reading this in Driver’s Ed instead of watching Red Asphalt.

Is driving safe or dangerous?, Tom Vanderbilt asks. Well… For every 100 million miles that are driven in vehicles in the U.S., there are 1.3 deaths. Not so bad, eh? Except…If you drive an average of 15,500 miles per year, as it’s looking like I do—as most L.A. drivers do—there is a roughly 1 in 100 chance you’ll die in a fatal crash over a lifetime of 50 years of driving. So, while each time we drive really isn’t so dangerous, taken cumulatively, each time we drive gives us a 1 in 100 chance of dying on a road.

Once you get past the fact that driving is the most dangerous thing we do everyday—and how little we notice that—the book is chocker-block full of interesting information about why, exactly, it is so darn dangerous; about how a country’s traffic fatalities are closely correlated to it’s level of corruption and how changing gender roles create traffic. How traffic jams even form, for that matter, and why more freeways actually cause more traffic. The N.Y. Times book review does a better job summarizing than I, if you find your interest so piqued.

So, I’m making an effort to drive consciously. I know that sounds ridiculous—who doesn’t drive consciously? Most accidents happen close to home not because we drive close to home more frequently, but because when we’re on familiar streets, we aren’t actually conscious. We’re on autopilot (or on the phone), so we don’t notice the unexpected. Like this. Driving seems so obvious that I forget that it’s really not all that natural to begin with—humans can’t even make eye-contact with each other past speeds of 20 miles an hour, yet we hurdle around at three times that and expect not to bump and wrestle and crumple occasionally.

I also learned, via Good, that the Honda Civic gets optimal fuel efficiency  at 55 miles an hour. While you will not find me puttering along the freeways of LA in my zippy new Civic at an unrealistic 55 mph, I am trying to stay as close to 65 as the other traffic permits me. Incidentally, the fatality rate for crashes is exponentially correlated to speed. According to Mr. Vanderbilt, you’re fifteen times more likely to die than in a crash at 50 miles an hour than at 25 miles an hour (not twice, or even three times more likely—fifteen). At high speeds, traveling just one mile an hour slower—or faster, as is usually the case—measureably affects your chances of dying in an accident.

“Before embarking on this book, I hadn’t thought much about driving since first learning to do it and acquiring my license,” writes Vanderbilt. “Since then, I’ve logged a few hundred thousand miles or so, had several minor crashes, and dropped by to the Department of Motor Vehicles every decade or so to glance at an eye chart and get renewed by a grumpy clerk. I mostly just got behind the wheel, fussed over the radio, and hit the road with a mixture of anxiety and wonder: anxiety over the danger of it, the crumpled cars on the roadside, the shockingly poor behavior, the nervous way people say, ‘Drive safely’ as you leave them; and a simultaneous sense of wonder that we’re all able to move about at high speeds, in such great numbers, with such fluidity.”

I tutor high school students in various subjects; today was Algebra day, with two different students at two different homes. So, with my commute downtown for some splendid editorial-assistant time, I spent a total of 3.5 hours driving this fine Thrusday. By driving, I mostly mean sitting in traffic, and it was while I was sitting in traffic today on Laurel Canyon Road—just oozing along behind brake lights—that I began to analyze my new and somewhat fervent obsession with traffic. For goodness sakes, I went to the library and was excited to find a 300-page book about nothing but traffic. Part of this obsession is the buying of a new car, which brings gas mileage and crash-tests and car design, otherwise marginal interests of mine, front-and-center.

But, I think the reason I’m so interested in traffic as a field of study, in its nuances and statistics and reasons, is that I need to assign some intellectual capacity–some academic context–to something that manifests itself so abundantly in my days in such mundane and irrational ways. It’s nice to have an audio book on CD and a cute car, but, as I was sitting there, crawling behind brakelights at 7:30, two fit and lovely ladies passed me on an evening jog. Running shorts and tank tops, a June-bug kind of evening.

And, the thing about driving, no matter how new your car or fantastic your music—no matter how much you give traffic meaning through study and statistics—is that it simply is not running at sunset.

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