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Traffic Automotive Science of Maps

The psychology of traffic: can you really beat the rush?

When you’re sitting in traffic that’s barely even crawling along, do you: a) calmly reflect that it won’t be too long before you’re on your way again? Or: b) curse everyone who passes you and start plotting an alternative way home?

If you answered a), we’re not sure we believe you. But when you’ve read this article you might think twice about answering b). That’s because science shows us that some strategies you might use to get home quicker just don’t work. Sometimes, they might even take even longer.

Let’s start with a congested motorway. Will drivers who decide to go off onto local roads save any time?

In fact, such a tactic is sometimes doomed to failure. Research from GPS data published in 2014 has found that traffic congestion in the UK is, on average, twice as bad at the busiest times on small roads as it is on main roads.


So the smart option, it seems, is to stick to the main highways. But even on the fastest of motorways, you’re almost certain to hit congestion at some stage. Traffic will start to bunch up. But inevitably a lane to the side of you will appear to be moving more freely. Should you switch?

The answer is 'no'. At least, not according to a study published back in 1999 by Drs Robert Tibshirani and Donald Redelmeier of the University of Toronto.

The pair simulated two lanes of a congested highway on a computer. Although the lanes moved at the same average speed, the simulation showed that drivers spend slightly more time being overtaken by other cars than they do passing them.

This is clearly contrary to common sense. If the average speed in both lanes is the same, it’s only natural to think you’d spend precisely the same amount of time passing other cars as being passed by others.

"The simulation showed that if you looked over to the other lane, you would see more cars passing your eyes than you expect to see,” Tibshirani told ABC news.

Human flaws

This is where human psychology comes in. Not only are we more likely to cast envious glances at cars passing us when we’re stuck in traffic, we look ahead more than we look behind. We also get frustrated when somebody overtakes us, while conveniently forgetting all those occasions when we passed others.

But no congestion lasts forever, and soon you’ll be on your way. At least you can make up for lost time by putting your foot down. If that’s what you believe, well, read on because you’ve been hoodwinked by the ‘speed fallacy’.

In 2008, a report published by the UK’s Department for Transport included a survey asking drivers a simple question. How much time did they think they’d save on a 10-mile journey by driving quicker – either 10mph quicker than 30mph, or 10mph quicker than 60mph?

They significantly overestimated both, but much more so for the higher speed. Going at 70mph, the drivers thought they’d arrive over seven minutes earlier. The actual time saving is just 86 seconds.


The same survey found that drivers overestimated the time they’d lose by going slower. Dropping your speed from 60mph to 50mph would add just two minutes to a 10-mile journey, but drivers thought it would take them over seven minutes longer.

Our tendency towards wishful thinking seems to be innate. A 2012 study by Eyal Peer and Lidor Solomon discovered that even professional taxi drivers overestimated time savings through driving faster, though by far less than everyone else.

Live fast; die young

From one perspective, driving faster could even cost you time. That’s according to Donald Redelmeier, who found that a speed increase of 1km/h takes 26 seconds off your life expectancy. That’s because the time you save is more than offset by the increased prospect of a fatal crash, which Redelmeier calculated from US statistics.

Of course, connected cars can give you an edge. HERE research has shown that cars with centrally managed re-routing and traffic awareness reduce journey times both for themselves and for others in the system, by spreading drivers out equally over alternative routes.

Since humans seem to be so bad at making rational decisions about how to avoid traffic, maybe it’s time the machines were given a turn?

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