1 Feb 2019

The Science Behind a Traffic Jam

Ever seen the traffic in front slowing down, ominously, as you lose speed gradually before coming to a stop? Then the inevitable traffic jam.

Surely there’s an accident up ahead or maybe roadworks? Yet the majority of the time, the hours lost in tailbacks are down purely to volume of traffic.

In 2017, a study confirmed that the UK had one of the most congested road systems in the World, with London second only to Moscow in the list of the most gridlocked cities. On average, motorists across the UK wasted 31 hours in rush-hour traffic, costing each driver £1,168, according to a BBC article.


How do traffic jams occur?

Why do these snarl-ups occur on our roads? The science behind this traditional and regular event is simple. Jams are caused when braking occurs as traffic slows ahead. This forces the driver behind to brake and this pattern continues down the lanes of traffic with a bigger impact, in terms of speed, resulting in one of the cars in the line stopping altogether. That obviously means those behind stop too.


The solution

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computer science professor Berthold Horn calls for equal spacing to solve the problem. If everyone left equal spacing between the car in front and the car behind then any loss of speed would not have such a big impact on those behind. The loss in speed would be absorbed by the regular gaps. Tailgating only exaggerates the stop-start effect.

Remember, when in traffic, that being too close to the car in front can in fact make the situation worse in terms of delays. Leave space and allow additional time to get to your destination if you know you are heading through a traffic hot-spot.

(Sources: Live Science and BBC News)

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