Managing Your Wheelhouse

Well, let’s face it: You think of yourself as a real estate professional, but if you measure your time by the activities you perform, interacting with customers and clients might only be second on your list. The cold, hard truth of the matter is that secretly, you’re a professional driver. And finally there’s a book for you.

Credit: Matthew Fang

Slate transportation columnist Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) (Vintage Books, 2009) may have a pedestrian title, but when you start reading, the rubber quickly hits the road. We take our time behind the wheel for granted, and Vanderbilt opens up our blind spots to full view. What does it take to communicate while we’re driving? Why does the other lane always move faster? How do traffic engineers (yes, there is such a thing) manipulate us while we drive? What do those endless ribbons of steel on our streets and highways have in common with ants … or grains of rice?

Vanderbilt eases us into his lane by suggesting that traffic is the original social networking. It may not have Like buttons and retweets, but it has a vocabulary all its own nonetheless, never quite as obvious as we think it is. We have a few lights and a horn designed to be startling at best and obnoxious at worst. After that, whether we’re zooming along or crawling into merged lanes, all we can do is gesture with these mobile machines, hoping the drivers around us guess our needs—a lane change, more space around our vehicles.

From there, we cruise through the more complex behaviors and emotions that course through us on the roads. Are aggressive drivers more dangerous than defensive drivers? Sometimes, but sometimes not; in either case, if you’re the lone example surrounded by cars filled with the opposite, you’d best blend in.

Vanderbilt then takes a turn down a road where we are being watched, examining studies that try to get into drivers’ heads to understand our behavior. “Driving becomes like breathing or an involuntary reflex,” he reminds us. “We just do it.” When we’re in that state, effortlessly navigating every bit of real-time information and stimulation, are we as safe as we think we are? Most of those studies tell us we aren’t—most of the credit actually goes to the environment that is designed to be safe around us. Making the situation tougher, Vanderbilt argues, it’s hard to become a better driver, because the only feedback is an accident. We can be barely competent drivers, mediocre drivers, or stellar drivers, but as long as we reach our destinations, we’re all just “good enough.”

And that environment around us? It’s carefully designed so we don’t know it’s there. Sure, you’ll glance at the lane markings, at the lines around highway onramps and offramps, and at the trees on a pretty residential street you think your clients would love to live on, but all of those are carefully planned to speed you up or slow you down. Traffic engineers train you to expect certain rhythms on certain roadways, and the intervals between lines or trees subliminally influence not only your car’s speed but your own reaction time.

Vanderbilt’s style feels like you’re chatting with him as his arm rests on his open window, the conversation flowing naturally from breezy anecdotes to thoughtful discussions of rigorous studies, with the occasional cheery pop culture reference tossed in to give us a shared frame of reference. So much of the knowledge he shares is unexpected, and even counterintuitive, that it’s a pleasure to ride shotgun with him as he tells his tales. In this case, the journey really is the reward. (And he’s continued the conversation at his blog, How We Drive.)

Bob Soron

Bob Soron has been copy editor of REALTOR® Magazine since 2002.

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