Futile Freeways: Who Slows Down to Move Ahead?


When you try to go faster on a thruway, you can go slower. Whenever everybody tries to go faster, traffic slows to a crawl, or stops. The fairest way to drive on a busy highway is to take your time; that way, everybody around you – if they only knew the secret – has a better chance of moving safely along.

These thoughts arose while reading a fascinating column in The Wall Street Journal recently by Jo Craven McGinty – “See a Quick Way Through Traffic? Not So Fast”. Sometimes, often, in fact, wisdom is counter-intuitive.

What happens when traffic is thickening is that “if something unexpected happens, it leads to sudden braking and what might have been a manageable slowdown becomes a miserable crawl…” Traffic engineers, McGinty reports, are considering an array of technical approaches to heading off snarls – measures like variable speed limits, ramp meters and “zipper mergers” to alleviate congestion. But, at their core, human consciousness, highway backups are attitudinal.

If we all try to get ahead, heedless of what’s beginning to occur around us, we’ll all get slowed down, or stopped. What can we do to induce more reflection, more shared awareness, in daily living? That’s a tough one. It arises not only on highways, but in workplaces, in government offices and legislative halls. Driver education instructors may attempt to acquaint trainees with the relational realities of traffic buildups, but not all the “finer points” are recalled when licensed drivers are behind the wheel. The instinct is to get ahead, before the guy coming up from behind.

“We’re telling them to slow down to reach their destination faster,” says a highway engineer quoted by Ms. McGinty. Yet that’s counter-intuitive. “It’ll be hard for the driver to recognize that,” the engineer adds.

How much about living is counter-intuitive? A lot. If we realized just how much, unwanted results might ease up and we’d all be happier. But that won’t be happening any sooner than freeway travel improves in heavy traffic.