Cars and the Brain

What I like most about Tom Vanderbilt’s new book, Traffic, is that it takes us on a tour of our most cherished delusions. We all think we are better drivers than we are (yes, even you); we estimate the odds of our next accident by reflecting on the number of crashes we’ve been in before (not the number of near misses we’ve had); and the safer we feel (in SUVs, say, or on straight roads on clear, dry days), the worse we drive, and the more accidents we have.

It reminds me a lot of how we respond to hurricanes. We overestimate the strength of our homes (even people in trailer homes are confident they can ride out the storm); we base our decisions about whether to evacuate before a hurricane on what happened the last time we were told to evacuate for a totally different storm; and when it comes to “natural” hazards like weather, we are lulled into complacency by the illusion of control (unlike in airplanes, where we worry a lot about risks that are so small they are effectively zero).

Here’s the thing: Nearly 40,000 Americans die every year in car crashes. And a disproportionate number of the dead are young—people who should have their lives stretched out in front of them. Then there are the tens of thousands of other young people who survive accidents, but are maimed for life. So I think of car crashes like one giant, atrocious disaster that happens every year. And, as in other disasters, what matters far more than anything else (but gets the least amount of attention and research funding) is human behavior—not technology or steel or anti-lock brakes.

And there’s a quiz! What’s not to love? I scored horribly, I admit. Really just God awful. I could quibble with quiz-master John Tierney about whether it is really important to know the length of the dashed white lines on the highway…but the fact remains that I didn’t even have the right number of digits.

Check it out. Let me know how you did. Help me restore my delusional belief that I know all about driving. Thanks.