How to navigate traffic jams

Many drivers have found themselves traveling down the highway at a good speed when, seemingly out of nowhere, vehicles begin to slow down. In such instances, drivers assume there must be an accident ahead, only to ultimately see nothing before traffic once again begins to move. What just happened?

If this situation sounds familiar, it may be comforting to know you are not alone. Traffic is a big problem in many cities, and is one of the leading causes of commuter anxiety.

A 2012 study from researchers at Washington University in St. Louis noted that long commutes cut into exercise time, which has the trickle-down effect of high blood pressure, greater body weight and lower fitness levels. The study also stated that being exposed to the daily hassle of traffic can lead to chronic stress. Furthermore, traffic can expose drivers to air pollution, which the World Health Organization says contributes to 3.2 million preventable deaths worldwide each year.

Traffic jams occur because of accidents, distractions on the side of the road, vehicle breakdowns, roads in disrepair, and other obstacles. But “phantom accidents” also contribute to their share of slow-downs. According to Berthold Horn, an MIT computer scientist, all it takes is one driver to create a traffic jam. It is similar to the ripples of tossing a stone into a lake, and the science of nonlinear dynamics refers to this as “emergent phenomenon.”

But Horn notes there may be a way to prevent phantom accidents. Horn says trying to maintain a distance halfway between the car ahead and the car behind you can ease traffic somewhat and produce improvements in commuting time, though everyone on the road needs to do his part for this to work.

Other ways to reduce traffic revolve around being a more observant and considerate driver.

  • Avoid being a rubbernecker, looking at things on the side of the road for too long.
  • Pay attention to cars entering the roadway and give them the space they need to flow into traffic effectively.
  • If you're entering a roadway, get to highway speed as soon as possible.
  • Be an observant driver to avoid collisions or near-misses.
  • Do not cut off other drivers, which can lead to road rage or tailgating.
  • Maintain a safe speed while driving and avoid reckless maneuvers.
  • Service your car on a schedule so it is less prone to breakdowns.
  • Check a GPS or map app on your mobile phone to see which roads have the most congestion, and consider taking an alternate route.

Each of these suggestions can help reduce, but not always prevent, traffic. Accepting that traffic can occur, leaving extra time to reach destinations, having relaxing or your favorite music at the ready, and realizing that the traffic wave will end eventually can help motorists cope with traffic.

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