Aggressive driving helps no one

Published 9:39 am Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Everyday I hop in my car to go to work, I have to prepare myself for the NASCAR-like antics of commuters on I-65.

Those who make the early morning commute may know what I speak of: cars jumping between lanes, a form of low-speed drafting designed to discourage would-be mergers and angry, waving fists awaiting those who maneuver in front of such drafters.

Though such aggressive driving may seem to benefit these drivers with a few extra car lengths of progress, applied mathematics provides a better answer for those of us stuck in gridlock prison.

Email newsletter signup

Yes, math can help all of us commuters.

Rush-hour traffic is similar to a historical problem in game theory called a Prisoner’s Dilemma.

No numbers and elaborate equations are needed to understand-it’s really quite simple. Two prisoners accused of a crime are being interrogated in two separate rooms. The police lack evidence to charge them with a major crime, so they are questioned.

It’s in the best interest of each prisoner to tell on the other prisoner, in exchange for a plea bargain. But if each one acts in this way, the authorities gain enough information to charge them both.

There is another option, and this is the one that motorists can take to heart. If each prisoner cooperates, they will face some jail time, but not as much as if they acted purely in self-interest.

While aggressive driving is awarded with temporary gains, it actually slows down the entire flow of traffic. That is, your swerving and failing to let people merge helps you, but slows down everyone else behind you.

If motorists cooperate, each individual car will not get to their destination quite as fast.

However, the flow of traffic will be much smoother, allowing the traffic system to work as it is intended.

Consider this one last scenario before you scoff mathematics and go back to selfish maneuvering. A car is speeding its way along I-65, disregarding prudent and posted speed limits.

Though it seems this vehicle is on its way to a shorter drive time, suppose it crashes.

Now it is easier to see how self-interest ruins the progress of the whole. Soon, miles of traffic are stuck going 0 mph, just because one motorist wanted to increase his or hers.

Maybe next time you’re faced with a drive you will think of the cars around you.

Its not a commute, it’s a game-one we all win if we collectively minimize our losses.