Sunday, September 13, 2009

Vehicular Vocabulary

I recently came across a new term in the August issue of Detroit's Hour Magazine. The appropriateness of the timing of my newly acquired vocabulary cannot be denied, as I read the article just two days before driving home from northern Michigan after a holiday weekend (Yuck, an extra hour added to the trip). The term I am referring to is "phantom jam"; a traffic jam with no apparent cause -- no accident, no stalled vehicle, no lanes closed for construction.

According to an article on Wired.com, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers who are studying the phenomenon in hopes of expunging it, have suggested an additional name for this kind of gridlock - a "jamiton". "It’s a riff on 'soliton,' a term used in math and physics to describe a self-sustaining wave that maintains its shape while moving."

These "phantom jams" or "jamitons" occur when there is even the slightest disturbance in the flow of heavy traffic - a driver unnecessarily touching the brakes, someone tailgating or an idiot talking on the phone and not paying full attention to the road. These minor disruptions to the flow of traffic cause a chain reaction that results in a self-sustaining traffic jam.


Following is a video of MIT's model of the formation of a phantom jam.



As a frequent weekend and vacation expressway traveller, I wholeheartedly support MIT's research efforts and would like to remind drivers not to tailgate, not to talk on the phone, not to unnecessarily use brakes and, most importantly, that the left lane is for passing and slower traffic should keep right.

Let's eradicate these terms from our vocabulary.

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2 comments:

Lorelei said...

These phantom jams happen routinely on I-95. Nice to finally have a term for it.

Rimpy said...

I've noticed these phantom jams for a long time. When I was a long-haul trucker, I observed them all over the country. I think the main cause, of the ones which you mentioned, is the tailgating. If you maintain a safe following distance (at least two seconds behind the car in front of you), there should be no reason for things to jam up over minor things like brake taps, abrupt lane changes, merging, etc.

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