The Phantom Traffic Jams

Comments 27

Traffic jam

You’re cruising down the highway, getting where you want to be.

Out of nowhere, you’re hitting your brakes.

Then, you’re completely stopped.


You mutter a few bad words. Maybe you call or text someone to tell them you’ll be running late. Maybe your gas tank isn’t as full as you wish it was. Maybe one of your passengers has to pee. Maybe you do.

Or maybe you put a smile on your face. Maybe you grin and bear it.

I can’t control traffic. I can only control me.

Or maybe you lose your shit because you’re a person like me and are always in a hurry to get out of the car. Maybe you get irrationally upset when things annoy you while you’re behind the wheel and you turn into the ugliest version of yourself.

What the-!?!?

Usually, I mutter a bunch of horrible things that make Jesus and all of my dead relatives sad, and then I calm down and remember that I can only control me.

Eventually traffic gets moving again.

You’re super-curious.

What could have caused this massive traffic jam I’ve been stuck in for a half hour?

Eventually, you’re travelling at normal cruising speeds. There was no accident. No obstacle. No construction. No nothing.

A phantom traffic jam.


The Power of One

Just one asshole.

That’s all it takes to cause a phantom traffic jam.

I have two routes to choose from every morning when I drive to work. One is highway. One is back roads.

A train crossing was flashing red lights at me this morning, so I turned onto the highway.

Traffic was horrible. Three lanes of horrible.

Some mornings, everything is fine. Many others are just like this. The results are generally the same on this stretch of road.

Phantom traffic jams.

I was in one this morning.

Just a bunch of drivers heading to work. Many people merging onto the highway, and pulling off on their various exits.

While we’re all human and mistake-prone, motor vehicle operation brings out the worst of humankind. And when there are a bunch of drivers travelling 70 miles per hour throughout three lanes of traffic, it only takes one mouth breather to slam on his brakes because he was texting and driving, or some attuned driver braking or swerving to avoid the girl furiously applying her makeup while talking on the phone to one of her friends while merging into highway traffic with a baby in the backseat.

“Horn (an MIT computer scientist) says it’s like a wave flowing backwards,” said NPR science correspondent Joe Palca in a radio interview that you can read here discussing phantom traffic jams. “People who study this talk about chaotic systems and positive feedback, but the practical consequences are that the amount of drivers having to slow down increases the further back you are from the original incident.”

Just one asshole.

Causing hundreds of drivers to make Jesus and their dead relatives sad.

It only takes one.

“Hey Matt! Who Gives a Shit?”

That’s a fair question.

Everything’s a metaphor with me these days. Even phantom traffic jams.

Because it only takes one incident (and that incident may have been an innocent mistake) to cause a huge chain of misery for a bunch of other people.

There’s no way to prevent these from happening. Because the world will always have selfish people taking and taking and taking, or some normal person accidentally getting it wrong.

The world will always have people who don’t care as much as others about doing the right thing.

Men who cheat and lie and abuse women are always going to “ruin it” for the rest of us.

Women who gold dig, use sex as a weapon, and abuse men are always going to “ruin it” for the women trying to do the right thing.

Naughty kids are always going to “ruin it” for the less-naughty kids.

Almost every crappy rule in the world is in place because of those select few who abused the freedom and privilege once afforded them.

Sometimes our spouses make thoughtless mistakes. Our children are clueless. Our friends are busy just like us.

We all accidentally annoy one another. Causing phantom traffic jams. Because we weren’t paying close enough attention.

We can choose to scream a bunch of obscenities and act like assholes. I’ll probably do that for at least a few seconds.

Or we can choose to be in control and make good choices.

Patience will get us through the incident at the exact same speed as if we act like assholes. And if we’re extra astute, we can choose a detour. A different route to get us where we need to be.

The road less traveled.

We can even do one better.

We can be part of the solution.

Paying attention. Keeping an appropriate distance away from the person in front of us. Keeping an eye on the person behind us.

Doing our little part to help ease the congestion by doing all the little things thoughtfully and conscientiously.

Being the change.

Making it just a little bit better for others and ourselves.

Until we’re all smooth sailing again.

27 thoughts on “The Phantom Traffic Jams”

  1. You are the MASTER of elevating seemingly everyday occurrences/details that we wouldn’t think twice about to MEANINGFUL, significant lessons. Do you know that every time I’m in that mess now here on the 5 freeway, I’m gonna think of what it symbolizes and what I can learn from it. To be sure, I’ll be adding more stuff on as well! Because I love to piggyback on thoughts like these. Thank you Matt. I almost mentioned you in my OCD and Blogging post today but I didn’t think you’d like it much. Also, someone mentioned you a while back in one of my comments….it was HIGHLY complimentary and I concurred. Of course. ps. Since I admitted to having OCD today publicly, I can say that it really drives me bonkers to be stuck in those things for hours and NEVER ever know why. There should be a website you can go home to and later enter in the exact exit on the freeway and the time when you slowed to a crawl and it will say things like, “Fallen mattress” or “overturned semi” or sometimes just, “HE wanted you to stop and think for a couple of hours. Did you?”

    1. You’re fantastic.

      THAT is an amazing idea.

      We could crowdsource that information. It can be a mobile app.

      People report the “cause” of a traffic jam.

      Just to make us feel better (or worse!) about our lost time. 🙂

      1. Is “crowdsource” what they do with Disneyland Aps when you’re trying to see how long the wait is for Splash Mountain so you can figure out if you should drag the kids on Pirates of Caribbean and tell them it’s exactly the same thing? (Other line-waiters plug in the number of minutes they’ve been standing for?) Is that what you mean?

        1. I’m not smart enough to know! Never used those apps at Disney.

          I just know there are apps out there that get all of its data from its users.

          Like an app that shows you were the cops are camped out trying to catch people for speeding. I have that one, though I never use it.

          It would be just like that, only funnier and more interesting.

      2. You can do this already…report police sitting on the side of the road, accidents, traffic jams AND take pics to let others know what and where you are talking about.
        It’s called WAZE and it’s better than any other map/GPS going on right now AND it’s CROWDsourced!!! (of course, it’s lots of fun for your passenger! while you are stuck behind the wheel ;-))

        1. Figures!


          Is there an option for the phantom jams?

          (In unrelated news, I’m going to start a band named The Phantom Jams.)


          1. I’m sure there is…in some way. I’ll take a look the next time I’m the passenger 🙂

            Can’t wait to see The Phantom Jams, playing in Ohio, unless you go on tour…and start traveling again….you can be Uncle Travelling Matt.

            Do you know who he is?

    1. Everyone always says “There are a lot of bad drivers out there.”

      There are probably way more good drivers the. We think. We always notice the bad ones and the damage they cause.

      Yes, that’s chock full of metaphors. 😉

  2. I always think about how I can’t control other people but I can control myself. Still I will cuss the hell out of the person ahead of me if they don’t drive the way I think they should. I’m working on that controlling myself thing.

    1. Louis CK does a hilarious bit about how we become monsters behind the wheel. So true and so funny.

      But yeah. A decent parallel concerning more important life things.

      Hope you’re okay, Vince.

  3. There’s this one light on my way to work that’s no turn on red so of course it’s always red when I hit it. The frustrating part is NO one is around because it’s 11:00 at night or damn close to it when I’m there. I’m that employee that’s teetering on the brink of lateness on a regular basis so the stupid red light gets cursed out almost every night. Even though I’m only stopped for twenty seconds (and I know this because I spend three seconds being mad, ten seconds looking around and debating if I should just turn, then count to five and it changes) it frustrates me.
    Just this week I realized I could cut through a shopping complex and avoid the light altogether if I want to. We always have choices, sometimes you just have to think outside the box and maybe work around “the rules”.

    1. I laughed twice reading this. Thank you for that.

      And yes. This driving stuff really applies quite a bit to all other aspects of our lives.

      Hope you’re well! Appreciate you saying hi. 🙂

      1. Glad I could bring some humor to your day.
        If nothing else driving stuff can always teach us patience. Everyone needs more of that.

        I am well today, hope you are too.
        Have a lovely day.

    1. Maybe I’m like the Sylvia Brown or Theresa Caputo of human emotion!

      Seriously, I’m glad you think that. It means I’m doing an okay job documenting this stuff. 🙂

      I try to pay attention. And write it down. I appreciate so much that you take time to look at it.

  4. I always find myself reaching for the controls of the hood-mounted laser cannon which I do not own – but faux vaporization is more satisfying than stewing in your own bile.

  5. Pingback: Suggestion Saturday: July 29, 2017 | Lydia Schoch

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Matt Fray

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