Drivers who frequently utilize the Southern California freeway system have probably at some point crawled to a stop and tried to guess how far ahead the crash was only to find that there was no crash after all. Researchers discovered that these ‘phantom’ traffic jam phenomena are the result of a chain-reaction stemming from braking vehicles.
Imagine a column of 50 cars, evenly spaced apart, driving down a straight road. Without warning, the driver of the lead car taps on the brakes. This action causes the second car to tap the brakes slightly harder than the first car, causing the third to tap the brakes slightly harder than the second car, and so on. Eventually, one of the cars in the column will stop completely, causing every car behind it to also stop. This creates a backwards-traveling wave of traffic, all because a car slightly applied the brakes.
This video in the article shows how the chain reaction causes a full stop of traffic.
So who’s contributing to these slowdowns? Most likely, it’s the person who accelerates to the car in front of them and brakes. Avoiding situations that require sudden braking is the key to preventing phantom traffic jams. That means allowing a little more space in between vehicles and anticipating slower traffic earlier for a steadier deceleration. Will this eliminate traffic jams? Probably not, but for those of us who drive on the freeways with any regularity, any little bit helps.
See the full explainer article here.
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