What causes traffic jams? Sometimes the answer is obvious: construction, crashes or regular rush hour. Other times, it may appear to drivers that there’s no apparent reason for the traffic to be there. In order to get a better handle on how the flow of traffic works, let’s explore traffic jam causes, from the more common to the rarer.
How Does Traffic Start
Accidents do happen, and with more people on the roads today than in recent years, both driving and walking, they’re more likely to occur. But it isn’t only that there are more drivers out there; there simply aren’t enough roads to keep up with demand.
What Causes Traffic Jams?
More People, Fewer Roadways
Between 1980 and 1999, the number of miles of highway increased by 1.5 percent, whereas the number of miles traveled by drivers increased by 76 percent. This imbalance between supply and demand has very real consequences, leading to more traffic jams, and worst of all, more car accidents. The increase in drivers and lack of comparable increase in highways are what causes congestion.
You might think that this is just a big city problem—places where a large population is concentrated in a small space. But the Federal Highway Administration reports that delays are becoming increasingly common in small cities and some rural areas as well.
A study by Dr. Jean Andrey and Daniel Unrau found that traffic collisions increase by around 50 percent during snow and rain. From rainy or foggy weather, to the extreme snowstorm that stops drivers in their tracks, the weather has an uncontrollable effect on not just traffic but road conditions as well. Even a gentle rain can make an impact if all drivers slow down together.
Something more serious such as a sudden mudslide could not only stop traffic but cause a collision if a driver happens to be in the wrong muddy place at the wrong muddy time. This is an example of how weather can have a compounding effect on traffic by creating bad situations, or by making already bad traffic situations even worse.
All in all, bad weather is the main culprit in 15% of traffic congestion cases, according to the DOT.
Another factor that can cause traffic congestion is the case of a mechanical failing. While arguably a mechanical failing could fall into a human-caused category, such as if the person failed to properly maintain the vehicle’s tires, this is not always the case.
Mechanical failings can also happen due to external factors such as a sharp object on the road, and can happen suddenly while driving, even if you just had your vehicle maintained.
While humans can help prevent and decrease mechanical issues by inspecting vehicles before every trip and making sure preventive maintenance cycles are followed, either way, these issues require the driver to get off the road. When you’re on a five-lane highway, this task can prove difficult. When other drivers rush to get around the stopped vehicle, it only further drags out the impact on traffic as drivers merge into surrounding lanes instead of stopping to let the person quickly get to the shoulder.
Again, while in some scenarios a driver may have been able to prevent the issue, even some of the most seasoned and responsible drivers can find themselves in these situations.
A newer form of traffic that is affecting cities more and more every day is actually the result of distracted driving. When drivers are distracted by their smartphones or other handheld devices, they might not drive at a constant speed, thus unintentionally increasing traffic density. Drivers might also get distracted at stoplights, which can affect traffic density once the light turns green. In fact, smartphone distraction at traffic lights can negatively impact regular traffic flow for an average of 27 seconds after you’ve stopped texting, according to the AAA Foundation . You should never text and drive, as it can not only increase traffic congestion, but also increase your risk for crashing.
Now that you know more about what causes traffic jams, are you more inclined to help prevent them? Take action by looking up traffic laws that your local and state governments want to pass, using carpools or public transportation to lessen the number of vehicles on the road, and pledging not to engage in distracted driving.