Study suggests traffic would flow much faster if we kept the proper distance between cars

The science of traffic once again suggests we all could be driving faster if we followed a simple rule:

But a new study in IEEE Transactions on Intelligent Transportation Systems mathematically models the implications of the larger problem: You’re not keeping the right distance from the car behind you.

That may seem counterintuitive, since you don’t have much control over how far you are from the car behind you—especially when that person is a tailgater. But the math says that if everyone kept an equal distance between the cars ahead and behind, all spaced out in a more orderly fashion, traffic would move almost twice as quickly. Now sure, you’re probably not going to convince everyone on the road to do that. Still, the finding could be a simple yet powerful way to optimize semi-autonomous cars long before the fully self-driving car of tomorrow arrives.

Traffic is perhaps the world’s most infuriating example of what’s known as an emergent property. Meaning, lots of individual things forming together to create something more complex. Emergent properties are usually quite astounding. You’ve probably seen video of starlings forming a murmuration, a great shifting blob of thousands upon thousands of birds.

But it feels so much better to let that pokey driver ahead know you are there by following closely!

For an earlier blog post about how science could improve traffic, read about zipper merges and other individual actions drivers can take.

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