November 22, 2006

Spectator Slowdown

I manage to live on the exact opposite side of Columbus from where I work. Every morning I take the highway straight through downtown (70->670) during rush hour. No one is a fan of traffic, and that includes me. I deal with it every morning though, as I try to get to work in less than half an hour.

I can usually make the journey in either direction in under a half hour if I leave at the right time. By adjusting my departure time by only 10-15 minutes, my arrival time can be changed by 20-30 minutes. That is to say that if I leave too late, I hit the worst part of traffic and it ends up taking me significantly longer to make the same trip.

"What causes traffic?", I wonder some days. Sure, the obvious answer is the volume of cars, but that's not specific enough. Additionally, we've all hit traffic at times that aren't rush hour.

Some of it seems to be caused by people driving too slow in the left lane, preventing cars from getting by. Some is people who are flat out lost, or are not paying attention to exit signs and merge late. Some people don't know how to merge it all. Other slowdowns are caused by people who insist on cutting into traffic from an outside lane even though there were signs suggesting that that very lane ended ahead. Lastly, I think much of traffic is caused by hair-trigger brakers, as I call them. These people who see a car's brakelights a mile and a half ahead and feel the need to slam theirs on immediately, causing a chain reaction.

Accidents can slow things down temporarily, but most of the time the involved vehicles are moved to the shoulder before there's a serious slowdown. Often this results in what is referred to as "spectator slowdown", where passers-by drive really slowly to get a good look at any available twisted wreckage or mangled bodies. Don't lie- you've done it. We've all been stuck in this traffic too- you spot the collision vehicles on the side of the road, no lanes are blocked, yet traffic is backed up for a mile and suddenly lets up as you pass the accident.

The only way to stop the rubbernecking is to stop doing it yourself. Instead of checking out the carnage, keep driving. I've made this effort before, but it's hard. After waiting in bumper-to-bumper traffic for the better part of an hour, I felt I'd earned a chance to take a look.
What is it that compels us to look at certain things this way? Why do we want to see crashes on NASCAR, big hits in football and hockey, or entertain ourselves with gory movies?

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