Driver behaviour: Learn from ants?

2013-07-19 09:10

NEW YORK, Aug 3 - Back in 2008, author Tom Vanderbilt published a book dealing with the idiosyncrasies of drivers. Vanderbilt suggested we could learn from "the world's best commuters" - army ants.

Despite being five years old, the book, titled "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us)," is still relevant today. We take a look at some of his findings.


Author Tom Vanderbilt used to drive politely, merging as soon as he saw signs that his lane was ending, until one day on a New Jersey highway when "he sped past suckers in the slow lane."

Ignoring the glares of drivers, he cut ahead of other cars just as his lane ended. He realised his aggressive move saved him time, much to the chagrin of other drivers, and began thinking about writing a book.

Vanderbilt said: "I became a 'late merger’. My wife was upset at what I had done. I was so haunted by this weird experience."

His book, published in 2008, was based on three years of traffic research and explored the patterns, etiquette, myths and idiosyncrasies of the roadways.

Vanderbilt's said, the root of many traffic troubles is the anonymity of car: "You can be Mr Lovely at home and then terrorise people on the way to work."


His findings revealed the extent to which stereotypes and fear play into decision-making. He found that men hoot more than women and that both sexes hoot more at women compared to men.

He said: "There's just a fear factor going on. I tend not to hoot at a large Cadillac Escalade with tinted windows that seems to have six people in it. But if it's a little old lady in a Honda..."

Vanderbilt said behaviours changed as fuel prices increased.

"Ultimately, traffic will not go away, congestion will plague roads, maverick drivers will blaze their own way and accidents will still happen," he said.

Vanderbilt suggested we could learn from army ants, which Vanderbilt describes as possibly "the world's best commuters" because they walk in trails and follow a well-defined set of rules and move in lanes as if they are on a super highway.

He said: "They communicate, perhaps not with hoots and foul hand gestures, and they co-operate as a community. The difference between their commute and ours is that their traffic flows, for the most part, without a hitch."

Do you agree with Vanderbilt? Email us and we'll publish your thoughts on Wheels24.