Sometimes, the yutzim on the freeway get themselves into lockstep, and a slow lockstep at that. It’s times like these that call for action, of the sort that gets you honked and/or yelled at. But the benefits are genuine:
According to the latest physics research, rule-breakers — drivers passing you on the wrong side or changing lanes too close to the intersection — actually help smooth the flow of traffic for the rest of us. “The interesting finding is that if most of the people are law-abiding, and you have a certain amount of people who are breaking the rule, then you are actually getting the minimum chance of a [traffic] jam,” said Petter Minnhagen, a physicist at Sweden’s Umea University and an author of the paper published in the journal Physical Review E.
Weirdly enough, this started out as a study of pedestrians:
Physicists at the school uncovered this phenomenon while constructing a computer model of how a crowd of people move across a confined space, such as a pedestrian-only street. They divided the space into squares, like a chessboard, and randomly placed pedestrians in some of the squares. Like real people, the model pedestrians had a certain small probability of momentarily pausing, as if they had run into a friend or had bent down to tie a shoelace.
To make things more interesting, the researchers then tossed a few mavericks into the mix, who didn’t follow the rules the other pedestrians used. The physicists ran the simulation over and over, each time boosting the percentage of rule-breakers. At first pedestrian deadlocks worsened. But as more and more rule-breakers joined the fray, something entirely unexpected occurred: traffic flowed best when only about 60 percent of pedestrians were obeying the rules.
Simple interactions of individual cars, people, or molecules add up to large patterns in a system. The high concentration of pedestrians in a small area increases the chances of a jam, but rule-breakers made the crowds spread out.
No surprise there, really: with almost anything in motion, there’s some sort of sweet spot, and it takes a little effort to find it sometimes.
Morris Flynn, a University of Alberta professor who uses computational methods to study car traffic, agrees with the explanation. Because rule-breakers “carve out their own path,” Flynn said, they dilute large concentrations of rule-abiders moving in the same way. He pointed out an example familiar to anyone who has driven on a two-lane road: breaking the speed limit to pass a slow vehicle prevents a long chain of cars from forming.
Which I had to do Friday morning to get around a sleepy-headed Camry with its cruise control set on a stolid 58 mph. (“The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.”) In this state, incidentally, they can bust you for doing that in the left lane, much to the surprise of the Anti-Destination League.
An abstract of the study can be found here.
(Seen at Autoblog.)