Canadians Talking Tech

3 causes of traffic and 3 cures for you

by Noah Bloom Posted in How To

Sometimes it seems a traffic jam just materializes on the road at the most improbable times or places. Sometimes you’ll get past a jam and find no accident, no construction, no police cars, and wonder what the heck was that? It’s like an invisible accident.

But why? It has to do with the ripple effect that causes traffic and our misunderstanding of traffic in the first place. What if, ultimately, most traffic is caused by human error — drivers overreacting to events — could we learn how to prevent it and spread this knowledge massively?

Photo credit: Mazda6 (Tor) on Flickr

Well, it’s been studied and proven. It’s not just about too many cars on the road — human error is actually a significant cause of traffic, and, at the least, you can actually do something to reduce traffic and increase your driving sanity.

Cause #1: Bad use of brakes
Cars slow faster than they can accelerate. Sudden movements and not indicating lane changes cause other drivers to overreact. Overreaction means braking and lighting the brake lights. Each successive car that brakes will brake a little more, and a shockwave jam of bunching cars appears, traveling backwards through the traffic. This needs no explanation — just check out this video:

From New Scientist:

Researchers from several Japanese universities managed the feat by putting 22 vehicles on a 230-metre single-lane circuit (see video).

They asked drivers to cruise steadily at 30 kilometres per hour, and at first the traffic moved freely. But small fluctuations soon appeared in distances between cars, breaking down the free flow, until finally a cluster of several vehicles was forced to stop completely for a moment.

What this means: human error is needed to cause this “shockwave” traffic. It’s more than just too many cars on the road.

Cause #2: Riding the brakes

Your car’s brakes, according to the car behind you, are either on or off. When you ride the brakes, meaning you are lightly resting your foot on the brake, causing very slight or no deceleration, the brake light is still lit… increasing the chances of shockwave traffic behind you.

Cause #3: Following too close

Regardless of it being a safety thing or no big deal, following too close is just another precursor to shockwave traffic. When you see red brakes lights lit ahead, you’d be more likely to preemptively hit your own brakes in anticipation, even if they’re not needed.

Cure #1: An engineer’s theories

Electrical engineer Bill Beaty spent his daily commute in Seattle’s traffic, where he realized that, as an amateur traffic dynamicist, he could do something himself to help alleviate traffic; and actually anyone can do it. As he puts it, “Sometimes One Driver Can Vastly Improve Traffic.” (Ironically, he had all the time to think about this while sitting in traffic…)

How? When you’re stuck in a jam, slow down until there’s enough space between you and the car in front so you can cruise at a constant speed without braking. You’ll effectively eat up all the mini jams in front of you for all of the cars behind you. You’ll notice that many truckers drive just like that.

Imagine, in the future, cars might come with a more complex form of cruise control, one that will automatically maintain a constant distance from the car ahead and less variation in speed, and alleviate the shockwaves automatically. Cool!

Cure #2: Better braking

Learn how to use brakes sparingly, albeit safely. Better braking would alleviate overreactions and shockwaves. On the technical innovation side, car companies (notably Mercedes and BMW) have started using adaptive brake lights. “It allows those behind you to clearly see whether you’re lightly tapping the brakes to slow down or applying full force for a sudden stop,” from BMW safety site.

Watch this non-embeddable Youtube video demonstrating one variation of this.

Another variation is flashing brake lights when the brakes are applied heavily. Check out this MSNBC piece “Will flashier brake lights reduce accidents?

The NHTSA had originally refused to make a permanent change to its auto safety rule, which requires the steady illumination of vehicle lights, but relented when Mercedes said it wanted to show its flashing brake lights improve car safety by preventing rear-end crashes. Dubbed Adaptive Brake Lights, these brakes lights are only activated when the brake pedal is pushed heavily for a hard stop. The feature is already available in Europe in Mercedes S-class and CL-class cars.

Although this is primarily aimed to reduce rear-end crashes, it also serves to show drivers behind if you are slowing down gradually or stopping urgently, so they can react accordingly.

Cure #3: GPS and cell phone traffic tracking
Technological advances in traffic monitoring will give drivers more real-time information and options to avoid traffic. GPS devices can tell you the best way to get to your destination by factoring in accidents, congested roadways, or construction zones. They are also using the location and movement of cell phones (with embedded GPS or tower triangulation) to create a real-time map of traffic congestion, supposedly with personal information removed, of course.

Bonus cures:

  • Better adaptive traffic light synchronization, which responds to where the traffic is and timed to maximize car flow
  • Pace cars in rush hour: notice how police cars in traffic keep a steady flow of cars behind them? No one wants to drive erratically. Designated cars could line up and pace traffic at a steady pace.
  • Don’t take your car, take public transit. Cities could continue to make better public transit. Alternately, take your bike, walk, carpool, work from home (or at least more often), or work less. The Onion once wrote: “98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others.”
  • Citizen tagging of bad drivers? This is a crazy idea. Would drivers tag, dare I say it, “bad” drivers (those who are erratic, unpredictable, and overreact) through a mobile social community? Ha, it already exists.

No more traffic! Destroy traffic jams!
Sure when you’re in a rush, the tendency is to drive closer to the car in front. We think that will push that car along or push them out of the way. Well, if it doesn’t get you there faster, it’s likely changing driving habits and accumulating traffic behind you.

Well, you can now believe that single drivers can have huge effects if they drive differently, effectively changing the capacity of the highway by eliminating bottlenecks.

Call to action:

So how can we educate people? Is it possible to spread new understanding of traffic and convince people to leave more space between cars and ride the brakes less?

What do you think? Your solutions are needed. Without them, we’ll continue to be stuck in traffic endlessly…

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