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10 ways to rediscover the joy of motoring

Wing mirror

Tom Vanderbilt
With rising petrol prices, jams and the ever-more ubiquitous parking attendant, motorists seem to have lost the joy of the open road. But problems with driving are as much in our head as on the tarmac, says author Tom Vanderbilt (right).

Getting behind the wheel of a car can turn the most mild-mannered person into an angry hothead. And as congestion increases, so do the irritation levels of motorists.

But help is at hand for the hard-pressed commuter, from US writer and driving expert Tom Vanderbilt.

1. DON'T MISREAD THE HORN

Too many people get irate at the sound of the horn, says Mr Vanderbilt, who spent three years examining driving habits around the world.

The horn's function could be entirely innocent, even benevolent. For instance, the honker could merely be pointing out that a fellow driver's petrol cap is loose.

"There's a tendency to want to go off at the first. Don't instinctively react to that noise. Try to think what the context is."

Drivers of convertible cars are less likely to use their horns than others, he says, because they don't have the anonymity of being enclosed and hidden.

Men honk more than women but women are most likely to be honked at, he adds.

2. DON'T CHANGE LANES IN SLOW-MOVING TRAFFIC

You're on a motorway and the traffic has slowed to a crawl. Why do the other lanes always seem to be moving faster?

They don't really, says Mr Vanderbilt. They only seem to because of something called "loss aversion" which means our brains are more sensitive to loss so we tend to notice the cars that overtake us, not the ones we leave behind.

And changing lanes is counter-productive. It increases the risk of an accident, makes a driver more stressed and doesn't make much difference. When tested in Canada, the driver that changed lanes at every opportunity only made four minutes in an 80-minute drive.

3. MAKE EYE CONTACT WHEN YOU CAN

Exchange glances as much as possible, especially with pedestrians at crossings, because it makes your intentions clearer.

Eye contact increases co-operation, he says, referring to a study which found that putting a photograph of eyes above an honesty box at a coffee machine made people give more money than if a photo of flowers was put there instead.

But the reality of driving means it's often impossible - not to say dangerous at anything over 20mph - to make eye contact with other motorists.

4. LIMIT YOUR COMMUTE TO QUARTER OF AN HOUR

The idea that any sort of a commute is a good thing might sound odd, but drivers actually benefit from a short spell in front of the wheel twice a day - 16 minutes each way being the optimum time, says Mr Vanderbilt. For many it is valuable, personal time.

"If you commute, you're going to a job so your day is very hemmed in. You have your job and your home.

"People listen to music most frequently in the car so it's a space you can do what you want. You see people singing and behaving in a way that's not usually possible. There aren't many private moments in a day so people turn the car into a private space."

But there are limits. The enjoyment evaporates the longer the drive, and a commute that creeps past the hour mark will test the patience of even the most passionate petrolhead.

5. REMEMBER, YOU DON'T OWN THAT PARKING SPACE

People leaving car parking spaces always take longer to do so when another car is waiting to get into the space.

This is because the space becomes more valuable, in the driver's eyes, when it is wanted by someone else.

The car is a private space in a public space, says Mr Vanderbilt, so motorists mistakenly think that once inside it, the land underneath is theirs as well. But there's no need to be territorial.

6. DRIVING IS A MENTAL WORKOUT

"For those of us who aren't brain surgeons, driving is probably the most complex everyday thing we do. It is a skill that consists of at least 1,500 'subskills'," says Mr Vanderbilt.

"At any moment, we are navigating through terrain, scanning our environment for hazards and information, maintaining our position on the road, judging speed, making decisions (about 20 per mile, one study found) evaluating risk, adjusting instruments, anticipating the future actions of others - even as we may be sipping a latte, thinking about last night's episode of American Idol, quieting a toddler or checking voice mail."

Because all this appears to be done so easily, experienced motorists treat driving like breathing. But problems arise if something unlikely occurs, because so much of driving is mundane.

The fragmentary nature of our attention was underlined in an experiment in which a video of people playing basketball was showed to the subjects of a study. Half of them failed to notice when a man in a gorilla suit walked through the players.

The lesson is to maintain concentration and don't slip all too easily into auto-pilot.

7. LATE MERGING IS OK

One of the biggest sources of road rage is late merging - when one motorway lane is going to end and the instructions are quite vague about when drivers should merge into the other lane. If a car doesn't merge straightaway, drivers in the backed up traffic queue get angry. In fact, those "selfish overtakers" are doing everyone a favour, says Mr Vanderbilt.

"People want to carry their personal idea of queuing into traffic and say 'That person is just [jumping the queue]' but why is there a lane anyway?

"More people will get through if drivers use both lanes to the end and then merge one at a time."

8. TAILGATING SLOWS US ALL DOWN

Tailgating accounts for 7% of road traffic accidents in the UK, says Mr Vanderbilt, but it's just another form of bully driving and it holds up the traffic.

"It increases your own crash risk and reduces the reaction time of the person behind you. If the person in front brakes, you have to come to a much faster stop and you have a chain reaction crash. Do you want to be reliant on the person behind you stopping in time?"

9. TREAT ALL CYCLISTS THE SAME, HELMET OR NO HELMET

An experiment conducted in the UK discovered that drivers gave far more space to cyclists that did not wear helmets, than those who did.

The researchers concluded this was because motorists interpreted the helmet as a symbol of a more predictable and sensible cyclist, one less likely to veer into their path.

10. LEARN FROM LEWIS

Racing car drivers accumulate more traffic tickets and take more risks in everyday driving than the rest of us, but there are certain things we can learn from them.

For a start, they have perfect driving posture, erect and alert, whereas others lean back.

And racing drivers always look ahead to where they are going, in order to speed through turns, which is something normal drivers would do well to adopt.

One reason for the high number of pedestrians struck by turning cars while crossing the road, says Mr Vanderbilt, is that drivers are not looking in the right place. They are looking at making the turn rather than where the turn will take them.

Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What That Says About Us)


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Some of these points should be taught and examined on the driving theory test - congestion and accidents could be significantly reduced. 'Zip'-style late merging is the quickest way for everyone to get through and it boils my blood that the vast majority of people think it rude, preferring instead to queue for miles past an empty stretch of perfectly good tarmac. I believe you get a ticket for this in Germany.
Tim Parris, Sheffield, UK

I agree with Mr Vanderbilt on all but one point, Late Merging. I have seen evidence where motorists in an out side lane that is blocked off have stream through despite warning and advice to merge further back have proceeded to merge at the last moment. This has caused the inside lane to come to a complete stop. Some even pull out of the inside lane to gain the advantage of a few yards. I also was in transportation planning and feel Mr Vanderbilt has got this wrong.
Richard, USA

There is an infamous junction in Edinburgh where a constant stream of traffic has to turn left into another constant stream of traffic. I discovered that if I wound my window down and caught oncoming drivers' eyes, I would get out quicker.
Andrew, Edinburgh

Caracas is one of the cities with more cars per person in the world, and the highways sometimes become huge parking lots. One of the things I do is listen to a good music and make exercise with my legs, arms and neck.
Max Trujillo, Caracas, Venezuela

I've noticed that if you make eye contact with someone they will nearly always let you pull out - a big smile helps too!
Liz, London

"4. LIMIT YOUR COMMUTE TO QUARTER OF AN HOUR" But that would mean stopping in the middle of a large roundabout and working from there?! I would probably be able to pick up a wifi signal and my mobile would keep me in touch with the office, but the traffic noise would be a distraction and there'd be nowhere to shelter when it rained.
Steve, Notts.

Drive an open-top car! When you are not sealed inside your own personal metal box, you feel more of a 'community' with other drivers around you, and feel more consideration towards them. Having the sun on your face and the wind in your hair makes you more cheerful too (when the weather allows!).
Richard Gosling, Aberdeenshire

I've found from experience on the A303 (where there can be stretches of single and dual carriageway) that late merging (point 7) is not OK once the volume of traffic is past a certain level. Once there is not a lot of room for the merging driver to get in at close to driving speed then both lanes slow almost to a stop (until onto the single carriageway after the bottleneck). If, at the higher traffic volume, drivers merge earlier then they can continue moving. At lower traffic volumes then late merging can be OK as there is more likely to be space to do so. Those sections of dual carriageway are only there for cars to overtake slow moving vehicles which also use the road but like any overtaking, if you cannot see the space ahead which you will pull back into, don't do it!
Nick C, Egham UK

Not convinced about all lanes in a traffic jam moving at the same speed, as a jam usually occurs suddenly the third lane hoggers come to a standstill, whilst the slow and middle lanes undertake them. I always figure the middle lane will have the most amount of lane changes so if I can do so safely I opt for the slow lane and pick a white van stuck in the fast lane as a marker. Usually this tactic works a treat - whoops there's the secret out!
Tim Fox, Beckenham

I disagree, late merging is NOT ok. Often you see warnings of lanes merging for several miles before an actual merge (typically for road works). Yet selfish drivers who wish to jump the queue drive along until the last minute pushing others out, despite there being plenty of time to get into the proper lane. If no one does this it will be faster for everyone as drivers at the front wont have to let these pigs in. I personally would never give way in these circumstances.
Paolo, St Albans

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