When I was a little kid, I remember being stuck in gridlock on I-5. (Seattle had congested freeways even back in the 1970s, shocking as that sounds.) And I remember being perplexed that all the cars would slow down in heavy traffic. Instead of spacing out so far, I wondered, why couldn’t they all just maintain 55 miles per hour and drive inches apart. As long as everyone agreed to drive the same speed and not hit the brakes, heavy traffic wouldn’t require us to slow down. Right?
My parents didn’t get it. Typical parents.
I changed my mind sometime after I got my driver’s license. But now it turns out there’s evidence that I was right all along.
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A recent study by the National Academies of Science found that distracted drivers—especially those with cell phones—create congestion, mainly because they drive slower than the normal flow of traffic. And a new European study finds that excessive braking is a prime culprit for backing up highways. I told you so, mom and dad!
I guess the real lesson here is that there are some surprisingly small things we can do to ease congestion. Driver education and awareness, for example. Banning cell phones on the road maybe. New technology that helps drives braker smarter and more safely. There are probably dozens more little fixes that cumulatively could add up to meaningful relief.
On the down side, however, these fixes don’t require blue ribbon panels or new layers of regional government or big new taxes for instrastructure </sarcasm>. And so politicians can still be accused of not doing anything about the traffic headache. But even so, it might be worth considering things we can do right here and now—and for cheap—to help ease highway congestion.