The Science Behind Traffic Jams

Life, Science

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Each snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty. It is the same for drivers in traffic; we are traffic, but we wonder how traffic can possibly exist (all while it’s secretly killing us).

Inspired by Tom Valderbilt’s presentation (the video above), Brad Plumer over at The Washington Post typed an excellent piece on why traffic accumulates, of which, was the inspiration for this article.

So what are the reasons for traffic accumulation?

No one drives at a steady speed. The New Journal of Physics uploaded a report back in 2008 in which a group of Japanese physicists experimented with a group of drivers by placing them in a closed loop course. The physicists told the drivers to maintain a certain speed and following distance, in which, they failed at executing.


(Images via WikiCommons(2))

What does this actually mean? Well, much like the combination of a pack of sardines and a tortoise, we humans tend to occupy as much of the open road as possible, while never maintaining a steady speed and following distance.

(Image via WikiCommons)

We can be good at a lot of things, but merging will never be one of them. Do you see that terrifying sign above? When two lanes somehow magically transform into one way? Well, it’s taught that the zipper merge is the most effective way to go with the flow without jamming the river. Notice how the cars' flow majestically, like a zipper closing slowly.

YouTube user Oddie Eddie said it best:

Usually, drivers feel bad about merging so late at the end of the lane, so they make the move early, thus creating congestion.

(Image via WikiCommons)

All honkers are do not honk equally. According to Jeremy Dean over at PsyBlog, men, (being the emotional cases that they are) tend to honk more quickly than their female counter parts. Luxury drivers tend to honk more rapidly, but less people tend to honk at luxury drivers due to the fear of their money being used to crush their proletariat lives. Those who drive convertibles have a tendency to honk less, thus proving their is still some hope in the world. 

(Image via WikiCommons)

If there’s a wreck, it’s either in the middle of the road, or everyone’s rubbernecking. Yes, a lot of people gawk at the sight of a crash. It’s usually because drivers want to see what the holdup was (and thus, adopt the role), to see who caused it, and/or to see how much carnage the people or car(s) involved have suffered. With this, there is usually a slow down, and an inevitable domino effect that occurs because the driver in front of you is taking their sweet time before realizing the car in front of them has already passed the spectacle that is life and death.

(Image via WikiCommons)

Driver courtesy, who’s a believer? More mature and older drivers are more likely to brake for others. If an automobile is carrying more passengers, other drivers have a higher tendency to be more courteous. If you’re closer to home, you have a higher chance of violating traffic rules. ScienceDirect’s Accident Analysis & Prevention report notes that this is due to unfamiliar settings forcing drivers to be more alert, while familiarity makes drivers less cautious.