13 October 2009

Interesting Words: Tom Vanderbilt

I am reading a fascinating book entitled Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt. Here is one intriguing passage:

For those of us who aren't brain surgeons, driving is probably the most complex everyday thing we do. It is a skill that consists of at least fifteen hundred "subskills." At any moment, we are navigating through terrain, scanning our environment for hazards and information, maintaining our position on the road, judging speed, making decisions (about twenty per mile, one study found), evaluating risk, adjusting instruments, anticpating the future actions of others--even as we may be sipping a latte, thinking about last night's episode of American Idol, quieting a toddler, or checking voice mail. A survey of one stretch of road in Maryland found that a piece of information was presented every two feet, which at 30 miles per hour, the study reasoned, meant the driver was exposed to 1,320 "items of information," or roughly 440 words, per minute. This is akin to reading three paragraphs like this one while also looking at lots of pretty pictures, not to mention doing all the other things mentioned above--and then repeating the cycle, every minute you drive. (pp.51-2; emphasis in the original)

This sure puts driving into perspective, doesn't it? Vanderbilt goes on discuss the enormous, and perhaps insurmountable, difficulties researchers are having trying to develop a practicable auto-piloted vehicle. Given the above, it is not surprising.

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