The Key to Reducing Congestion Could Just Be Less Selfish Driving

Most of us know better than to read and drive, but we’ve all been guilty of bad behavior at one point or another.

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If the road you’re driving on is congested, consider this idea: It just might be your own darn fault.

Bad driver behavior is a major contributor to clogged roads, according to Baher Abdulhai, a professor at the University of Toronto who recently made his case to Toronto’s TheStar.com:

[C]ould simply improving our driving habits make a difference?

Yes, says Abdulhai, it would. “We don’t have a good driving culture in the [Greater Toronto Area].”

It’s really quite simple, drivers share the road and are in a relationship with other drivers. The actions of one driver impact other drivers, many times in a negative way. …

Abdulhai says GTA drivers need to know that refusing to let drivers merge, rubbernecking, speeding into already congested areas and driving the wrong speed in a lane need to be viewed as much more than just bad driving.

“Driving behaviour has an impact on traffic congestion. It makes everything worse. It’s not the silver bullet to fix traffic congestion, but if you combine the right systems with disciplined driving, a 25 to 30 per cent reduction in congestion is possible.”

The Star article was written after a recent incident in which 21 drivers were ticketed for slowing down and, beyond just gawking at a traffic collision on a Toronto-area highway, actually taking pictures of the scene (those folks must put together some fun slide shows).  

Uncouth, selfish, and inefficient driving habits aren’t hard to find in most cities around the globe -- although Toronto is a bit of a special case because the city’s mayor, Rob Ford, is famous for setting a poor example behind the wheel. After a recent incident in which Ford was photographed reading and driving on a busy highway, a police officer publicly begged the mayor – on Facebook! – to get a driver:

"Finally, on behalf of all the citizens of Toronto that value road safety, Mr Mayor... please get a driver. It is obvious that you are busy enough to require one and no amount of money you are saving by not having one is worth the life of one of your citizens."

It’s not just Ford who likes to play by his own rules while he’s driving, of course, although let's hope that most of us know better than to read and drive. But we’ve all been guilty of bad behavior at one point or another. Which is why many engineers have advocated for roads that essentially save us from ourselves – either by creating wide, straight arterials with “forgiving design” (a solution that has been widely criticized when applied to non-freeway environments) or through traffic-calming elements such as medians and raised crosswalks that force drivers to take notice and slow down. Since we still seem to mess up despite these measures, various auto companies are testing automated systems that hold the promise of someday taking many driving decisions out of the hands of motorists. Maybe robots can do it better, the thinking goes.

Abdulhai concedes that technical and engineering solutions have their place in decreasing congestion. Lights at on-ramps and congestion pricing can ease traffic flow (building bigger roads, many traffic engineers now concede, just increases the number of people driving, leading to an endless cycle of more and more traffic).

But Abdulhai says that the cultivation of a “disciplined” driving approach could ease many of the problems we see today, along with other low-tech tricks, such as raising curtains around the site of a crash to reduce the all-too-human temptation to gape at tragedy.

A culture of well-behaved, mannerly motorists doesn’t come out of nowhere, of course. Abdulhai refers to the difficulty of obtaining a driver’s license in Germany. In that country, there is no speed limit on the Autobahn system -- justifying a learning process that includes hours of theoretical and practical instruction from teachers who themselves must meet rigorous standards.

Driving programs such as Germany's lead to lower crash and fatality rates as well as improved traffic flow. More than that, they emphasize a driving environment where respect for other users of all types is the norm. From an article written by the Deutsche Fahrlehrer-Akademie:

The goal of driving instruction is no longer just to impart knowledge and techniques, but also to put across the social and ethical values, in other words to inculcate behavioral patterns and attitudes which are no less significant in reducing accident risks than the actual driving skills themselves.

During the process of instruction, the learner driver is made aware that he carries a high degree of responsibility towards his fellow human beings and his environment.

The question is whether citizens in countries other than Germany (and the few others with similarly intense programs) would be receptive to more extensive instruction and a more difficult licensing test. My guess is no, at least in the United States.

When it comes to smoothing traffic flow, engineering solutions such as robotic cars are a quick fix, the kind we like. Something like a magic anti-fat pill, compared to the “eat right and exercise” solution that educating and training drivers represents.

The only problem is, those quick fixes always seem to come with unintended side effects.

Top image: Robert Crum/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.