Car-strangled spanners

It's the ultimate triumph of hope over experience. Every morning, millions of otherwise weary individuals rouse themselves to confront a cornerstone of their day: the drive to work. They listen to AM radio for "traffic on the threes." They tune into TV for flashing lights warning of hot spots. They assess the weather with a practiced eye and ponder alternative routes.

And most days, they leap into the car just to hurry up and wait.

If you're ever in need of jump-starting a dinner conversation, mention traffic. A certain coterie will soon be swearing to commutes that are 10 minutes shorter than humanly possible. And woeful tales of two-hour treks over 15 auto-clogged miles will compete for air time with legends of outmaneuvering a late-model BMW in a 12-year-old Ford Taurus.

Clogged highways are a global problem, especially as cities stretch to accommodate ever more people. Mexico City, for example, is undertaking a five-year plan to deal with overloaded roads (see story).

Given the energy expended on analyzing commutes in the US, it might be logical to think average travel time should be declining. But the Census Bureau reports that it has actually increased 3.1 minutes in the past decade, to 25.5 minutes.

So much time in the car, so little to do.

That may explain why many drivers like to change lanes in traffic. The thrill of the tactical challenge aside, the temptation is to join those other guys who are clearly going faster. But are they? Many experts say changing lanes to get ahead is an exercise in futility. If you don't believe them, try tracking the leadfoot who handily passes you at the outset of your commute. He is likely to be idling alongside you just a few miles later.

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