You don’t need to know the cause of the problem to solve it

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You have probably had the delightful experience of being stuck in a jam of slow-moving cars that suddenly disappears without revealing any obvious cause for the jam. No crashed cars, no roadworks – what was that about?

These ‘phantom jams’ have been shown to arise by accident. One car suddenly changes lane, causing those behind it to brake sharply. When you have fast-moving lanes of traffic with only short distances between vehicles, that kind of braking sends ripples down the road. Drivers brake harder and harder to prevent themselves from hitting the vehicle in front. Eventually, the traffic towards the back is at a standstill – even though that isn’t what any of the divers wanted to do.

We could trace the jam back to that original driver who changed lane sharply. That would be pointless though, because they are not affected by the braking going on behind them. We might publicly berate people who change lanes sharply. We might lecture drivers so they promise never to change lanes sharply ever again. Would that prevent it from happening again? With millions of drivers on the road, any of whom could do this, this is not possible. And anyway, they might actually need to in some cases, because of approaching junctions, hazards, or some other road user.

What would happen if, instead, we looked at what happens when jams don’t occur. This is when drivers have enough time and space to react to other road users – by braking or maneuvering without forcing the vehicle behind to take  evasive action, thus rippling the effect down the road and causing a jam.

This happens when roads are quiet, or when traffic is moving slower and drivers have more time to react. Hence the variable speed limits that are deployed around the world now. The solution is to bring in lower speed limits at busy times – which bizarrely allows more traffic along highways than do higher speed limits and the jams that come along with them.

Greater traffic flow, fewer jams and lower risk of accidents to boot. This solution doesn’t address the cause of the problem – abrupt actions – at all. It simply allows them to happen without undesirable consequences.

Where can you learn from what is working well for you in times of quiet and low speed which you can build in when you are feeling stressed and things are moving too fast? Perhaps slowing things down can actually increase both your productivity and your wellbeing.

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