We’ve all been struggling with the inconvenience caused by the road repairs at the highway intersection. It seems like the road works will continue forever, doesn’t it? Driving on either highway has become a maddening experience for many.

Tom Vanderbilt dissects road and driver problems in TRAFFIC: WHY WE DRIVE THE WAY WE DO (AND WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US), Vintage.

We spend bags of time stuck in our cars. Americans spend as much time driving as eating, often the two activities are combined.

Vanderbilt addresses important questions such as why city driving involves (or creates) so many traffic jams. Could it be because of all those drivers looking for a convenient parking space? Yes, it could indeed. Vanderbilt also tells us that for most of us driving is our most complex everyday undertaking. The exceptions would be brain surgeons or others in similar occupations, although driving isn’t exactly a walk in the park for them either. Vanderbilt refers to driving as a “cognitive workload” requiring “anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 discrete skills and activities.” These skills and activities don’t include eating, putting on make up, texting, or talking on a cell phone whilst driving, but the snap decisions and on-the-go choices that the process of driving itself requires.

TRAFFIC looks at related issues such as road rage. Vanderbilt points out that drivers tend to drive closer to oncoming traffic when there’s a center divider than in its absence, that accidents mostly occur close to home when driving often slips into “automatic pilot” mode, that we drive more safely on dangerous roads, even to the sticky issue of roundabouts vs. intersections. Please excuse my jumping in with both combat boots, but having witnessed how badly American drivers react to roundabouts in countries where roundabouts are commonplace, I must disagree with the persistent belief that roundabouts would be a better alternative in the U.S. Maybe future generations of American drivers, those who start driving with roundabouts in place, might adapt to the change, but current drivers do not and maybe cannot take roundabouts in stride. Even younger drivers have a difficult time of it when our few traffic lights are disabled and replaced with four-way stop signs at intersections. As drivers we don’t adapt well to changes.

Vanderbilt has studied drivers’ behavior, roads, and traffic patterns in Europe and Asia as well as on more familiar ground. He claims the idea for TRAFFIC: WHY WE DRIVE THE WAY WE DO (AND WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US) came to him whilst driving on a New Jersey highway.

The late Charles Kuralt, noted for his CBS “On the Road” segments and specials, once commented, “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything.”

DIVIDED HIGHWAYS: BUILDING THE INTERSTATE HIGHWAYS, TRANSFORMING AMERICAN LIFE by Tom Lewis, Penguin, describes how the plan for a national network of roads began in the 19th century and was realized in the latter half of the 20th century. Lewis recounts the effects the 42,000 miles of this road system wrought upon the landscape as it altered everything in its path, in the sheer amount of earth moved and concrete poured. The social effects were and still are many. Interstate Highways bisected and fragmented neighborhoods, added to the downsizing of rail systems and public transportation, and gave rise to fast food and motel chains. Mom and Pop diners and downtown hotels could not compete. Downtowns died and far flung suburbs cropped up like mushrooms after the rain. The Interstates improved the circumstances of both African Americans, who were no longer segregated to the back roads in the South, and women, who joined the ranks of drivers in ever increasing numbers.

BLUE HIGHWAYS a travelogue memoir by William Least Heat-Moon, Back Bay Books, takes the reader on a winding tour of back roads, the ones once traditionally printed in blue on road maps. The book was first published in 1982 and recounts a journey undertaken in 1978. Since then many road atlases no longer follow this blue highway tradition.

Heat-Moon’s odyssey began when he lost his teaching job and his wife left him for another man. Both events occurred on the same day. The travels commenced with this observation: “A man who couldn’t make things go right could still go. He could quit trying to get out of the way of life.”

Heat-Moon drove across the country in a circular pattern living in a van he called Ghost Dancing. Along the road he met all manner of people, his descriptions of them and their encounters are vividly drawn.

This is the story of a native American, a Sioux, in search of the real America. How ironic. Heat-Moon laments the very things the Interstate Highway System has fostered: a fast food and convenience subculture.

BLUE HIGHWAYS includes an index of the many towns and cities visited, a line drawing of the outfitted van, and photographs.

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