Penkava: A quick explanation of slow traffic

OK, I admit it. I don’t do well in traffic jams. I mean, I don’t get wild crazy or anything, but I do become a bit grouchy when I’m trapped in my car as I am sitting at a standstill on a Chicago expressway with a million other drivers as we wait for some Sherlock 3 miles ahead to figure out which pedal is the gas. Yep, that kind of grouchy.

You might appreciate the dialogue between my wife and I during one of these jam sessions.

“I don’t understand why we are stopped!”

“Mike, complaining won’t move us any faster.”

“I know, but there’s got to be a good reason why we’re not moving!”

“I’m sure there is. Why don’t you relax and listen to the Cubs game.”

“Honey, trust me, listening to the Cubs is the last thing that will relax me!”

“Well, why don’t we just listen to some music.”

“I don’t want to listen to music! I just want to get moving. I betcha there’s some guy up ahead who’s causing all of this.”

“Mike, sometimes these things just happen. Do you think we’ll have pretty fall colors this year?

“Honey, the only colors I see right now are the red brake lights in front of me going on into infinity.”

“Mike, you always have a way with words.”

And so it went. The traffic finally began to move, and we eventually were speeding along like nothing ever happened. In fact, as we drove on we found absolutely no reason for that traffic jam … no accident, no stalled vehicle, no rogue herd of North American Chicagoland Sheep crossing the tollway in search of greener pastures. Nope, nothing like that.

So … just WHY were we stuck in that traffic jam for no apparent reason? If you have ever wondered about that, I have discovered the answer.

Scientists who study traffic patterns have developed a term called “Traffic Shockwave” to describe this kind of phenomenon. Here’s how it works …

Let’s say you are driving along on a busy multilane highway. The traffic is moving at 55 mph. Suddenly a driver (the aforementioned Sherlock) turns into another lane. His gutsy move then forces the cars immediately behind him to hit their brakes, resulting in slowing them down to 50 mph. This starts the shockwave.

The drivers behind the 50 mph cars now must slow to 45 mph in order to maintain a safe distance as the shockwave continues. Next, the people behind the 45 mph cars slow to 40 mph. As the cars behind them see brake lights, they also slow down. Now we’re going 35 mph. Eventually the shockwave travels backward until traffic speeds are reduced to a crawl and drivers move at a stop-and-go pace.

The whole shockwave process may take several minutes and cover several miles, but what started with one plucky person has now effectively slowed down the entire mass of commuters. And somewhere in that mob is a wife telling her husband to listen to the Cubs game as he contemplates the pretty fall colors.

I guess it all kind of makes sense. I now know why we’re stopped and that I was right … it’s all because of one person. But what’s the solution? Well, scientists have been able to steer us toward that answer, as well.

They say that although one person started this mess, one person can end it. How? All you do is slow down for a while until there is a large space between you and the car in front of you. Then you proceed at a uniform speed and maintain your distance, thus avoiding the starting and stopping. In this way you are actually absorbing and eating up the shockwave and now are part of the solution and not the problem.

So there you go, commuters. We now know the whys and the wherefores of those phantom traffic jams we get stuck in. Now if we could only get Sherlock to stay in his own lane.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He is currently stuck in traffic on Randall Road implementing his anti-shockwave strategy as he delights in the vibrant seasonal foliage. He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.

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