Saturday, April 05, 2008

Driving in my car

Clive Thompson's always-interesting blog links to a great video illustrating how traffic jams form.

Thompson writes
This also puts me in mind of William Beatty, the electrical engineer who -- while stuck in traffic in 1998 -- figured out a way to hack traffic jams and erase them. Basically, when he was stuck in a jam, he'd slow down until he had a really large amount of space between him and the car in front of him. Then he moved forward in at very slow, uniform speed, so that he no longer stopped and started. Sure enough, the wave stopped at him: Everyone behind him began driving at a uniform 35 mph. "By driving at the average speed of the traffic around me, my car had been 'eating' the traffic waves," he wrote. The only problem, of course, is that he himself was stuck traveling at the average speed of the wave in front of him, which -- at 35 mph -- is pretty pokey.

I can recommend from recent experience not to try this in Dublin. At least not in the city. There are two many traffic lights which totally ruin the exercise (and attract much ire from one's fellow drivers) But the concept Thompson describes - that driving in a kind, respectful, letting-the-other-guy-in way reduces traffic and thereby is in all our interests - is an interesting one from the behavioural point of view?

1 comment:

Kevin Denny said...

This issue has been addressed by game theory.In prisoners dilemma games what is privately rational is not socially optimal.Of course if the game is repeated people are more likely to be behave in a collectively optimal fashion. In traffic you don't know who the other guy is so why bother let him out.But if its in the car-park at work, where you may know the person, thats different.All of which raises the small problem that we DO cooperate when we don't have to.The neuroeconomics literature has looked at this & I think the evidence is that striatum [a brain area also activated when people take recreational drugs] is recruited in these games,leading to the conclusion that we are "hard-wired" to cooperate.Or maybe its just nice to be nice [but don't quote me on that].