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.