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By Richard Handler
It's No Accident
Applying mindfulness behind the wheel
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.