Thumbs up for Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt. Nonfiction.
You would think, given that I don’t own a car or commute any great distance, that reading Traffic, which is after all primarily about driving, would be a peculiar choice for me. But it’s not really just about driving – it’s about roadbuilding, signage, pedestrians, and, above all, human nature. And it’s all completely fascinating: which goes to show you that a really good writer can make any topic interesting. Highly recommended for anyone interested in psychology or engineering, and everyone who has more than a twenty-minute commute.
There is no limit to the things that can disrupt the flow on Los Angeles highways. “Do you want to know the number one specific item dropped on the freeway?” asks Claire Sigman, another Airwatch reporter. “The most recorded item is ladders.” Trucks, just like in the Beverly Hills Cop movies, also spill avocados and oranges. Portable toilets have been dumped in the middle of the freeway. In 2007, a house, replete with graffiti and a “For Rent” sign, sat for weeks on the Hollywood Freeway, abandoned during the course of its move after it struck an overpass (the owner had taken a detour onto an unauthorized route). People hold apocalyptic signs on overpasses, or threaten to jump. Wildfires break out. Out in the high desert, tumbleweeds cause problems. “People swerve out of the way rather than just drive through it,” Hughes says. A computer screen at the Airwatch office ticks off a steady flow of traffic incidents, ranging from the absurd to the horrifying, as recorded by the California Highway Patrol (CHP). Codes are used to disguise the presence of stalled female drivers, who might otherwise be preyed upon by unsavory men listening to police scanners. Not atypical of the stream is incident 0550, which describes a “WMA,” or white male, wearing a plaidjacket and “peeing in middle of fwy.” It adds a noteworthy detail: “No veh in sight.” (Now, where was that wayward Porta Potti?)
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