Open Book

It’s No Accident

Applying mindfulness behind the wheel

Magazine Issue
January/February 2009
It’s No Accident

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us)
Tom Vanderbilt
Alfred A Knopf. 402 pp. ISBN 978-0-307-26478-7

Somewhere near the middle of Traffic, journalist Tom Vanderbilt tells the story of two roads in Spain, one apparently safe, the other frighteningly dangerous. The “dangerous” one was a mountain road, a “climbing, twisting, broken-asphalt nightmare of blind hairpin turns,” with few guardrails, just “gapping vertigo-inducing drops into distant gulleys.” Road signs were infrequent, and all read simply peligro. Danger! It was a white-knuckle ride, and Vanderbilt honked on every blind curve.

He drove on another Spanish road, this time to the airport. It was a nice, modern, four-lane highway, with gentle curves and lots of visibility. Multiple signs alerted him to every possible danger. It was a glorious, sunny day. As he drove, he was so relaxed that he almost fell asleep and ran off the road. “Which road was more dangerous?” he asks.

The surprising, counterintuitive answer: the one designed to be safer. Monotonous roads with little traffic can be killers. In fact, 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-accidents are not alcohol related, but occur because drivers don’t pay attention. And, the lovely, high-tech, modern highway, engineered for safety, actually encourages a driver’s version of attention-deficit disorder.

This story isn’t an argument for lousy, badly designed roads, but it exemplifies why this book is such an intriguing and useful read: it’s an intricate account of the psychology of an ordinary activity most of us do every day and take for granted—one that often just happens to be lethal.

Every year, 40,000 Americans are killed on the road; more die driving in one month than were killed at the World Trade Center on September 11. Fol­lowing those attacks, many people decided not to fly, so they drove instead. In consequence, as Vanderbilt reports, road “deaths in the three months after 9/11 were 9 percent higher than those during similar periods two years before.” In a sad, unintended way, terrorism and traffic deaths became inextricably linked.

This book is the first comprehensive popular account of driving and traffic psychology. In it, Vanderbilt has made accessible an enormous amount of material: its 300 pages, including 100 pages of footnotes, summarize research I’ll bet you didn’t even know existed. The book brims with head-spinning facts, studies, and statistics, and delivers choice anecdotes. Reading it is a little like driving itself: it’s so packed, so congested with codified data, that reading it can be downright fatiguing. Nodding off occasionally, you want to pull over and take a little nap, or pour yourself a big slug of coffee.

Intriguingly enough, the book echoes themes that have emerged in psychotherapy. After I’d read this book, the word that persisted in my mind—one that seems an implicit subtheme of the book—was mindfulness, a term so widely adopted in psychotherapy as to be almost banal. Much of the psychology of driving is, in effect, about “mindfulness,” how we pay attention. Strangely, the point that paying attention is the most critical requirement for driving sets up the paradox alluded to earlier: the most seemingly dangerous roads can actually be the safest, and the ones designed to be the safest can be the most dangerous.

How can this be? Here’s where the minute attention to attention itself pays off in the research. Ask yourself how much time you’re allowed to be distracted, while behind the wheel, before something terrible happens? The answer: two seconds. Being generous, add another second. Two to three seconds.

Think you’re a pretty good driver, who keeps your eyes on the road? Vanderbilt supplies us with alarming statistics. If you’re an average driver, your attention is diverted 10.8 times per hour when you look for your sunglasses, candy, or change for a toll. Have an infant? Your baby diverts you 8.1 times per hour. Listening to the radio? You adjust it 7.4 times in that hour. And looking for the right station isn’t a simple, single act: you fiddle; you take 7 glances, plus or minus 3, depending on the radio (analog or digital). Add to this that new cars confront the driver with souped-up control panels, dazzling “intense displays” of distracting features: lighted buttons, gauges, graphics, and screens, which allow you to adjust the car’s internal climate, sound system, and external mirrors, warm the seats, open the moon roof, and interact with your GPS talk-to-you device, not to mention the old standards, like check the oil, gas, speedometer, and temperature, pop the hood, and open and close the windows.

Naturally, you want to bring your own tech stuff with you on the trip. Scrolling for songs on an iPod means you take your eye off the road 10 percent longer than you would with a CD player or a radio. The longer it takes to fiddle, the more you put yourself at risk. Researchers say if it takes longer than 15 intermittent seconds to adjust a device, that’s potential trouble. So, fellow drivers, be satisfied with that song you only half-like: fishing for a better one might be the last thing you ever do.

And cell phones are worse than you thought: it’s not the mere talking or listening; it’s that the longer the conversations, the more intense they are. As you talk, your eyes lock onto the space directly in front you, diminishing your peripheral attention. Good drivers scan a wide area, casting their eyes down the road (the expression I learned in advanced driver training was “aim high while driving”). People using cell phones are like teenagers: they don’t scan for trouble, but are caught up in their music or talk, staring straight ahead like zombies watching TV. It’s as if they had mental lockjaw. That’s one way to recover your adolescence and maybe never get old at all: start using a cell phone while you’re operating a motor vehicle.

Sure, you try to be cautious and compensate while on your cell phone; you drop back and drive more slowly. That’s when you get rear-ended. The problem is that while driving, you must anticipate the unexpected, like that bicycle that appeared out of nowhere while you tried to turn right. Add to this the fact that intersections are “accident magnets”: you vaguely pay attention to the light signal when it turns green, but you miss the car racing through the red light and aiming straight for your front door.

So paying attention means not only looking for what you think should be coming, but what might be a surprise. Jon Kabat-Zin, the pioneer of Stress Reduction Mindfulness–based therapy, likes to test people’s capacity to see the whole picture by presenting a video showing basketball players dribbling, running around, weaving in and out. You watch carefully, keeping your eye on the players, and you completely miss the guy in a gorilla suit slowly making his way among them. It’s a stunning commentary about how difficult it is to see what we don’t expect that Vanderbilt cites it in his book. Driving is like that: you’ve got to look out for the gorilla—the unexpected bike, truck, or pedestrian—but usually you don’t.

If you’re eating in the car—one in eight drivers are said to eat in a car at least once a week—you could miss a whole band of gorillas. Twenty-two percent of American meals are served through a takeout drive-in window. Taco Bell’s “hexagonal Crunchwrap Supreme” is designed to “handle well in the car.” Who’s looking for a gorilla while chomping into a cheesy Tex-Mex burrito?

We notoriously don’t see bicyclists—which is why you put your life on your handlebars when riding a bike. The Netherlands has a much lower fatality rate per mile for cyclists than the United States because bicycles are everywhere: drivers are conditioned to look out for them. Similarly, New York City is one of the safest cities, per capita, for pedestrians because walkers are everywhere. The most dangerous city for pedestrians is Tampa, Florida: walkers are an anomaly there, so drivers don’t look out for them, with fatal consequences.

A therapist reading this book might be struck by another fact that springs out of the mass transit of information in Traffic: how cut off drivers are from feedback, the most important factor in successful therapy, next to a good therapeutic alliance. Clinical feedback to clients acts as a kinder, gentler version of the reality principle—letting clients know when their feelings and thoughts are distorted and how their behavior affects other people. But encased in a 2,000-pound metal shell, shielded from meaningful feedback, you can freely scream obscenities at the driver who cut you off, and generally act like a lunatic—which you wouldn’t with someone you encountered face-to-face.

This lack of genuine feedback is what accounts for the fact that, according to research, almost all drivers think they’re above average in their driving skills, though in reality 49 percent of them can’t be. The so-called “above-average effect” helps explain the initial resistance to new safety measures, from seat belts to cell phone restrictions. “We overestimate the risks to society and underestimate our own,” writes Vanderbilt: other people’s driving behavior needs to be changed, not ours. So the roads are filled with above-average “drivers (especially men) who insist on maintaining their above averageness.”

This is a version, says Vanderbilt, of the if-I-ruled-the-world thesis: “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place.” If other drivers drove like me, the roads would be safer. This should be familiar territory for therapists, who often hear clients blame everybody else, certainly not their blameless selves, for their problems. By providing feedback, therapists gently help people understand that, just maybe, they share some of the responsibility for their mishaps—but, of course, drivers’ therapists don’t usually accompany them in cars, critiquing their driving skills.

The lack-of-feedback problem is compounded by the number of times drivers barely miss having accidents without knowing it. They’re concentrating on tuning the radio as their car swerves to the right, forcing the guy in the other lane to swerve to miss them, but they don’t notice. They don’t perceive what almost happened to them, or they blame it on the other guy.

In fact, Vanderbilt says, even when an accident happens, chances are you won’t comprehend the real reason for it. This is due to what traffic-research jargon speaks of as “initial error” and “error recovery,” how we process the error. Drivers are like many clients—refusing to take responsibility for self-caused mishaps, if they even remember them.

In the end, after hundreds of facts and studies, what’s the bottom line, the takeaway message from a book like Traffic? It’s that the best and safest drivers are those who work at driving. That’s hard to do when you drive every day and have long commutes. And it’s even worse when your car is a rolling living room, with coffee and treats and theater-quality audio, let alone Blackberries and other devices that allow you to text-message. That’s why the smartest traffic planners, many of them Europeans, contend that the way to make things safer is to make drivers more alert.

The legendary Dutch planner Hans Monderman—yes, like all fields, traffic engineering has its visionaries—turned his back on decades of received wisdom and designed streets in villages free of traffic signs, or with just a few of them. When you get to an intersection without the usual light or sign, you’ll be supercareful; you’ll take responsibility. Besides, since drivers often ignore traffic signs anyhow, if you can design a streetscape that makes a driver mindful of his or her environment, everybody will be safer. Such designs combine ingenuity and simplicity. Putting a child’s bicycle on a curb is better than putting up a sign saying “Watch for Children.”

A question that Vanderbilt asks (which occurs from time to time to the reader) is that if driving is such a risky proposition—so downright dangerous—why do people put up with the huge killing-field figures? After all, more than 4,000 Americans have been killed in Iraq, but 40,000 people are killed in traffic accidents in just one year in the United States. And it’s a worldwide phenomenon: although statistics vary, up to 1.2 million people are estimated to die every year from all forms of traffic accidents. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2020, road “fatalities will be the world’s third-leading cause of death.”

What gives? Why do people tolerate it? Why aren’t there marches? Protests? Vanderbilt suggests a couple of possible answers. First, people have trouble making sense of large numbers; psychological tests confirm this. Second, people die out of sight in traffic accidents, “dispersed in space and time.” At the same time, we’re abstractly aware that people die in accidents, so a death in one isn’t a novel event. We’re psychically numbed to the enormity of the problem.

Perhaps most important, suggests Vanderbilt, we’re blinded by the misconception that when we drive, we’re safe and in control; hence, many people are afraid to fly and drive long distances to avoid it, even though they’re much likelier to die in a traffic accident than in an air crash. Plus, argues Vanderbilt, we believe life is “less risky when we can feel a personal benefit.” We want to drive: it suits our lifestyles, so we downplay the risk.

Therapists, here’s timely advice for you from the exacting world of traffic research: when you drive to the office, don’t use your cell phone, don’t eat your breakfast, don’t spill coffee on yourself, stop fiddling with your radio, be supercareful at intersections, and please try to see those invisible stop signs you never really stop at. Or if that’s too much to ask, at least cultivate more awareness of the possible dangers of the road, as you’d counsel your clients and patients to do in their own lives. If you pay more attention to the road and less to distractions, you have a better chance of seeing, and getting out of the way of, that 3,000-pound gorilla roaring up in the lane behind you.


Richard Handler

Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada.