A by-the-numbers look at 'phantom' traffic jams

JOHN OVERMYER / newsart.com
JOHN OVERMYER / newsart.com
Posted: September 06, 2010

When battling Labor Day traffic, an irritated motorist might respond with the sort of language that comic strips represent by a string of symbols.

For Benjamin Seibold, traffic evokes different kinds of symbols: Greek letters and differential equations.

An assistant professor of mathematics at Temple University, Seibold studies "phantom" traffic jams - those aggravating road delays that occur for no apparent cause other than high volume.

Cars get packed too tightly together. Someone hits the brakes, prompting drivers behind to respond in kind. And a wave of braking ripples backward along the roadway.

Seibold and his colleagues gained notice last year when they reported that, mathematically speaking, these waves of slowing traffic behave like shock waves from an explosion.

An obvious solution is to drive more slowly and allow more distance between cars. Yet those who drive that way are likely to have others cut in front, acknowledges Seibold, who was at MIT when he started this line of inquiry.

"When you're the only one who does things better, it can punish you a little bit," he says.

Another option, says Seibold: an onboard sensor that measures the distance to the next car, coupled with a computer to smooth out aggressive patterns of acceleration and braking.

In the meantime, perhaps it's best to take it easy. Seibold's calculations show that in the long run, speeding forward to fill that small gap in traffic makes little difference in when you arrive.

Peaceful living through mathematics.

- Tom Avril

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