I think most of us know that 'traffic jam' refers to slowing / stopping on congested roads. Anyone who's driven a car knows that a traffic jam can be a royal pain in the arse, and an especially biting frustration when you need to be somewhere at a certain time and traffic prevents that from happening.

Traffic jams are usually the result of some vehicular accident. A lane or more gets blocked, and other drivers must cope with it. This kind of thing can cause slowing / stopping for miles back. Traffic jams can be caused by rubbernecking as well; an accident on the opposite side of the freeway can cause people to slow down to try to see what happened, and their brake lights cause a chain reaction and a small localized slowing lasting up to an hour or more.

A less frequently observed phenomenon is the psychosomatic traffic jam. One chronic example is on I-880 south in Fremont. True, there is construction along that stretch of freeway right now, but the road has been the same for many months: they're adding lanes; no merging is necessary due to the construction. The psychosomatic traffic jam goes like this: drivers who frequent this stretch of freeway know that there's always slowing just before Dixon Landing Road, so they slow down in anticipation. It's a vicious cycle.

Anyone who has studied fluid dynamics at all, or anyone who has any intuition and experience with water moving through hoses, nozzles, or rivers will know that in a bottleneck, the fluid must travel more quickly. Slowing down in a bottleneck results in compounding flow problems. Obviously the traffic that fills five lanes will not fit into two lanes very easily. When five lanes merge into two, the two-lane traffic must travel much faster to clear the way for five lanes of incoming traffic behind them.

Even when you're not losing lanes, vehicles can only go as fast as the traffic in front of them. If some cars start to slow down, many other cars behind them will be forced to slow down in a sort of domino effect.

I bring up those last points because I believe we can all make a difference when it comes to traffic. I believe that difference needs to be made on from the ground-up, on a grass-roots scale.

When leaving a traffic jam, go as fast as you can!

Certain signs are dead giveaways that you have reached the front of the traffic jam:

  • You pass an overturned car in the middle of a lane. That's probably what has been causing all that slowing for the last few miles.
  • You see a car wreck at the side of the road. Probably the same story.
  • Inexplicably the road seems to be clearing ahead of you.
In any of these situations, go as fast as you can! I don't mean to go faster than you feel comfortable going; that will only cause more accidents and more traffic jams. Drive safely, but drive quickly. Do not try to see why the accident occured or who got hurt. It's not safe to be doing site-seeing while driving, and it's frankly none of your god-damned business. If you must know, ask a passenger to peer over his shoulder while you're gunning it out of there, or tune to a decent AM radio station. All in all, you're generally better off not worrying about it at all and just getting on your way to your destination and off the road.

The traffic jam must clear from the front. As soon as you are at the front, you must go as fast as you can, so the front will eventually move back towards the back. Once the front meets the back, the traffic jam no longer exists. The back usually continuously moves back as cars traveling at decent speeds hit the back of the traffic jam, so the front must be moved back quickly. This means that you must accelerate as quickly and as early as you can.

If everyone drove as quickly as the space in front of them allowed, traffic jams would last only until the obstruction had been cleared, and faster-running bottlenecks would minimize merging delays. I don't believe my vision is impossible; we just need to get there through educating the ignorant and combating the propaganda that slower is necessarily safer.

Traffic jams on freeways are common, but they are also common on city streets, especially where numerous traffic lights are concerned. You can also your part to reduce traffic jams on city streets.

One thing that I have noticed is how lethargic and slow people are when accelerating as the light turns green. If I am the first one in line at a red light, I usually find myself way out in front shortly after the light turns green, even though I drive a car with a relatively small four cylinder engine. I have, on more than one ocassion, left a Mitsubishi Eclipse or some other car with way more power than mine in the dust. What the hell is this? I wonder if people realize that if they accelerated at their car's top potential, more people would get through the green light before it turned red again. Why do people spend so much money on fast sports cars if they don't use the power? You don't have to exceed the speed limit to accelerate to a decent speed quickly.

Of course, this isn't only the drivers' fault, there's always the problem caused by traffic lights that don't stay green long enough for everyone waiting to get through.

Another way to help clear a traffic jam is to try and keep a constant speed while you are in it, so that you never are stopped. Think of it as a game...you pick a speed, say 10 miles per hour, and if you exceed it or stop, you lose. This means letting the car in front of you go ahead a ways, and sometimes putting up with people cutting you off.

However, if you do it right, all cars behind you will also start to move at a constant rate as well, and your lane will clear the jam that much faster when you are gone, and you will get some karma to burn.

Also, keep in mind that changing lanes not only makes the jam worse, it usually gives you very little advantage unless your lane is actually blocked by something.

Dealing with traffic jams has become such an integral part of the lives of those in big cities that we often don't even think about it. We have accepted it as a constant. We think nothing of a sixty to ninety minute drive, one way, amid foul-smelling and tainted air. My question is, does it really have to be this way?

The simple answer is no, it does not. There are a thousand little things that individual drivers can do to alleviate, perhaps eliminate, traffic jams.
Let's look at the reasons traffic jams happen and address each:

  • Accidents

  • We all know they happen. And when they do, we all gawk as if we've never seen one before. Here are a few things that would reduce the amount of accident-related traffic:

    • Don't gawk at the accident. Period. Go home and watch Cops or some other equally ridiculous "reality" show to get your jollies. There are people trying to get places and your rubber neck is in the way. Also, while your eyes are roaming the accident site, guess where they aren't? That's right, on the road. No need to belabor this point.

    • Avoid the accident altogether. If you know there is an accident ahead, take a different route and save yourself (and others) a headache.

    • If you are involved in an accident, make sure everyone is OK and then (if you can) move your vehicle off the road or into an emergency lane. There is some sort of rumor that you're not supposed to move a car that's been in an accident. This is not true. Get that thing off the road so the road can do its job.

  • Volume

  • This is mostly due to people trying to get to and from work. Special events can also be the culprit. Following are some ways to relieve this type of traffic:

    • Let other drivers get in front of you. Bear in mind, most gridlock occurs as a result of people trying to get on or off a highway, or at interchanges. The selfish nature of the average driver actually causes delays that result in gridlock. If you see someone with their blinker on trying to get over into your lane, let them. How much time did that cost you? A couple of seconds? You just saved them and the line of cars waiting on them to get over some time. So you lost a second or two, but many others gained a second or two. Do the math; it really works.

    • Don't tailgate. This follows the last tip. The more space between cars, the easier it is for merging traffic. Remember, gridlock begins where traffic merges. Keep some space between cars and allow others to get in front of you.

    • Avoid changing lanes to try to get in one that's moving faster. This never works. In fact, it adds to overall delay. Change lanes only when you need to.

    There is one final way to keep traffic jams down: Don't drive. =)

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