February 17, 2018

Best Books Q&A: Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic

By Margaret Heilbrun

Driving is something that so many of us do so automatically that we’d never dream to think it means anything. But as Volvo owner Tom Vanderbilt documents in his LJ Best Book, Traffic, road rage has merit, and there’s a connection between how one behaves behind the wheel and a country’s level of corruption. Sunday drivers and speed demons alike will brake for this enlightening window into human nature.

Any advice you’d like to give to upcoming holiday drivers?
New Year’s Eve is, along with Halloween, one of the most dangerous nights for pedestrians—it’s about number five for drivers. If you’re drinking, don’t drive, that’s obvious, but be careful where you walk as well.

You offer fascinating details about pedestrians and how they cross streets. The difference between pedestrians in New York City and Copenhagen is something! You note also that drivers seem to adapt their driving methods to those of their new environments, but this doesn’t seem to be the case with pedestrians? Why is that?
Well, from my own experience this actually does happen with pedestrians, too. When I’ve been in Copenhagen or a place like Munich, and I don’t see people crossing willy-nilly, but rather waiting for the signal, I find myself settling into that pattern as well. Maybe I don’t want to stand out as a stupid tourist or something.

You drive a Volvo in Brooklyn (so do I, a 1999 inherited from my parents), but as a native Manhattanite, I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 26. I assume if public transportation were such that everyone could forestall getting a driver’s license until their more complicated adult lives required it, a lot of traffic and accident problems would be lessened—or not?
Without question, if we raised the driver’s licensing age to 21, we’d eliminate entirely that riskiest category of drivers and save thousands of lives. Car rental agencies, for example, typically don’t rent to people under 25, which, coincidentally but perhaps suggestively, is the year that’s been identified as when the prefrontal cortex, the bit of human brain involved in assessing risk and reward, becomes mature.

You have a great blog that you post on regularly, relating to Traffic, which shows how you’re keeping up with the subject, while I bet you’re also working on a new project, but do you also have time for some leisure reading?
Let’s see, rising to the top of the nightstand index are Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul, State by State (edited by Weiland/Wilsey), a newly released collection of stories by Daphne du Maurier, and a quite inventive novel I overlooked from a few years back, The Terrors of Ice and Darkness, by Christoph Ransmayr. On the coffee table I’ve also been absorbed by the new Oxford Atlas of the World and The Chicagoan, the collection of the Second-City version of The New Yorker.

Your book has received a lot of deserved attention. What’s the top unasked question that you’re still hoping some darned journalist will ask you? And, of course, how would you answer it?
I think I’ve been asked just about everything at this point. I do know the question I really don’t want to hear ever again: “So, why do we drive the way we do, and what does it say about us?”