I’m interested in how things work, how humans interact with themselves and machines, how humans design stuff. How nature works intrigues me less, although that can be fascinating too. Observation of human-created environment chews up a lot of my time, although frankly, my powers of observation can fail miserably at times. That’s another conversation.

Perhaps there is no better arena for observation than our roads and highways. Here, humans mix it up with each other in a semi-ordered/ordained fashion using machines and infrastructure. It’s also an environment where, as a driver, you’re acutely aware of what other people around you are doing. Or at least you should be. So it’s no wonder that driving habits provide many insights into how humans get along with each other.

My thoughts along these lines started recently as I came to a four-way stop. Each of the other directions already had a car stopped, waiting. As I was the last one there, custom dictated that I would go through the intersection last. It’s a good rule but it’s often not efficient. With heavy traffic, having one car cross the intersection at a time is a bit daft and I see it happen a lot. Better to have the opposing cars cross together, with the left turners working their way across in the usual order. So, my thought was that as I came to the intersection, if the car opposite me moved first, I should immediately go too, even if I was going ‘out of order’. It wouldn’t hold up the cross-traffic cars – they had to wait for the one car anyway. It would be more efficient. The problem would be that the other drivers might not see it that way and would not love me for it. But it got me thinking about how we drive and how we can do it more efficiently. Later, another situation put that together with a related concept – timing. Timing promotes – or can destroy – efficiency.

Question: You’re stopped at an intersection intending to make a right turn. You have a stop sign, the cross-traffic does not. Hence you must yield and wait for an opening. A gap in traffic appears and you anticipate moving out. When do you start to move? When do you release pressure on the brake pedal and press down on the accelerator?

It’s a question of efficiency and awareness of your car’s response characteristics. It’s a question of timing. If you answered the question by saying you’d wait until that last car had completely gone by before releasing the brake pedal, you’re not doing it right.

Consider. It takes a finite amount of time to move your foot from the brake to the accelerator. It takes a finite amount of time before the car actually moves forward significantly (granted, most cars with an automatic transmission will creep forward after the brake is released but not very quickly). In that time, the car that passed by, which is moving at the speed of traffic, will have traveled a good distance down the road before your car even nudges forward, much less enters the traffic lane. You will thus need a considerable gap to safely make that right turn.

Efficiency suggests that you can do better. It’s all about the timing. Specifically, you should start the turning process well before the car passes by. Release the brake just before it gets to you and press the accelerator just as the rear end of the car is in front of you. Your car will take some time to speed up and move into the lane, so there’s little chance you’ll collide. You’ll end up with a not-very-large gap between you and the other car and the drivers waiting behind you at the intersection will love you for it. Efficient. And safe. With the other car already at speed, if for some reason that driver suddenly decided to stop right when you started your turn, there’s still little chance of a collision. Cars don’t stop instantaneously so it will be past you anyway and you will have plenty of time to back off or even abort the turn.

Two others:

When stopped in your lane to make a left turn across opposing traffic, you will also need to wait for a gap. In this case, it’s a little more serious because if you screw up badly, you’ll get broadsided. Your passenger in particular will not love you for that. But you can nevertheless use the concept of efficient timing. The first thing you will need to have done is not stop so far along the lane that you have to make a sharp left turn. Stop several meters before that point. This will do two things: it will allow you to make a gentler turn and more importantly it will allow you to start your acceleration into the turn with your wheels pointed forward, i.e., not immediately into the opposing traffic lane. (By the way, not turning your wheels while you wait is basic safe driving. You don’t want to get rear-ended into opposing traffic.) With your car already having gained a little forward momentum, you will need a smaller gap to turn and get across the lane safely. It takes very little time for a moving car to cross one lane of traffic. Hence, you will improve traffic flow. The drivers behind you will love you. And if your car is an old clunker, that initial forward movement will allow the engine a chance to stumble before you commit to the turn.

A final example, one not involving potential collision situations. In my town, we have a lot of roundabouts, traffic circles. They help with efficient traffic flow. As a matter of courtesy (and state law, I believe), to help the roundabout operate efficiently, you must put on your right turn signal before exiting. That allows the driver entering the circle at that point to anticipate a gap. So when do you actually reach for the turn signal lever? Right before your exit? No. The process of activating the turn signal involves, again, a finite amount of time. Even if you have your hand ready on the lever, the electrical relay that operates the blinker takes time to do its thing. And there isn’t a lot of time – you’re typically not in a roundabout but for a few seconds. If you wait too long, the driver in that car waiting to see if you’re exiting won’t see your blinker until too late. She’ll first see your car actually starting to exit and will not love you for it, potentially missing the gap. Instead, activate your signal as you pass by the exit before the one you intend to use. The blinker won’t blink in time to confuse anyone about that earlier exit point but will indicate your actual intention in time to be useful, and courteous. Everyone in town will love you.

Timing. Efficiency. These are concepts we can all love if handled properly, especially on the roadways.

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