What Causes Traffic and How Can It Be Prevented?

Recent studies have found that in 2018, motorists on the most congested roads in the UK spent an average of 178 hours stuck in traffic. That equates to about one week simply sat in traffic, costing the average driver approximately £1,317 each and the UK economy a total of £7.9 billion over the course of the year. Unsurprisingly, drivers in London spent the most time sitting in traffic queues, totting up an average of 227 each in 2018 (9.5 days), followed by Edinburgh (165 hours / 6.8 days) and then Manchester (156 hours / 6.5 days).

Globally, Britain is one of the worst places for traffic, with leading motoring associations concerned that it is only getting worse with time. In this article, we will explore some of the main causes of traffic jams in the UK as well as a couple of things that motorists can do to help ease congestion

Large scale problems that can cause traffic:

One of the most obvious causes is that the roads are simply over capacity with cars. Rising numbers of cars on the roads can in part be attributed to cars becoming much more affordable as a result of new finance options, global manufacturing and an increase in personal wealth overall. Whilst this in itself is not so much of a problem, the lack of infrastructure to cope with so many vehicles, coupled with uncontrollable factors like the weather and struggling, underfunded public transport systems has led to roads becoming too full up.

Another one that goes without saying is the weather. During adverse conditions like heavy rain, snow and low temperatures, people are more inclined to jump in their car rather than face the elements on their way to work meaning there are more cars on the roads than usual. What’s more, road conditions and visibility worsen significantly in bad weather meaning that the likelihood of accidents and mechanical failures goes way up. And when accidents or breakdowns do happen, traffic is an inevitable consequence due to part of the road becoming inaccessible – plus cars may need to slow down and move to the side for emergency vehicles in particularly bad incidents.

Mechanical failures and breakdowns can also be attributed to other factors too. If a person has neglected to maintain their car properly and suffers a fault in their engine or tyres, then they are more likely to break down whilst on the road. However, unpredictable things such as sharp objects and poorly maintained roads (e.g. potholes) also put drivers and their cars at risk of experiencing untimely mechanical failures and as a result, producing blockages in roads.

Poor, dangerous and competitive driving can also be partially to blame for traffic jams. Drivers that do not obey speed limits, those that drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs or those that are distracted by their phones, other passengers, food etc. put themselves and others at risk of an accident and therefore contribute to congestion.

Rubbernecking is one of the most preventable causes of congestion. This refers to the way in which cars will slow down when passing an accident in the opposite direction in order to take a look at what has happened. As naturally curious beings, we are all guilty of doing this when an incident has occurred on the road however it is a major cause of traffic jams. Not only does it slow down the flow of traffic, but it is also very dangerous as drivers become distracted, not focusing on other cars and the road around them, making the chances of another collision more likely.

Braking, although it sounds strange, is, in fact, one of the major causes of traffic and specifically what is referred to as “phantom” traffic jams. This refers to when congestion seems to be unexplained and not attributable to anything obvious like roadworks or an accident. The cause of it comes down to the simple act of braking which creates a chain reaction effect that travels down the line of cars. The theory goes that when one car touches their brakes even briefly and their brake lights are illuminated, the car behind will do the same in anticipation of going into the back of them. The car behind them and so on will do the same, with the brake pressing action lasting slightly longer each time which eventually leads to all cars coming to a halt. The same effect can also be created when one driver changes lanes suddenly and the cars in the receiving lane must brake to maintain a safe amount of space between them and the joining car.

Smaller scale and temporary factors that can cause traffic:

Smaller road/ utility works and repairs including the use of temporary traffic lights and sometimes road closures.

Double parking causing a bottleneck situation.

Traffic lights out of sync as a result of technical problems.

Too many pedestrians at a crossing preventing a car to turn.

Special events such as music concerts and sports games that see an increase in the flow of both cars and pedestrians.

Temporary disruptions to public transport services.

What can you do to help reduce traffic jams?

If all drivers made a handful of changes to help decrease congestion, then the overall problem could be reduced significantly. Some things that you can do include:

  • Plan an alternative route that tries to avoid roads where major congestion occurs. Consider taking a slightly longer route than usual as in the long run, this may actually save you more time during rush hour. There are a number of free traffic apps that use GPS to track traffic and provide real-time information about road closures, route planning and heavy congestion that can help with this.
  • Whilst it is not against the law to use your phone as a sat nav (as it is illegal to call or text when driving), having your phone visible and within reach is still very risky as it can still divert your attention away. Try to avoid looking at or reaching for your phone at all to minimise distraction. If you have to use it as a sat nav, familiarise yourself with your route beforehand so that you are not overly dependent on it whilst driving.
  • Distracted driving also includes things like eating, drinking and smoking, as well as adjusting the radio, having music on too loud and even other passengers. Be mindful of anything that causes you to become distracted from the road and fellow road users, and make efforts to minimise it.
  • Driving whilst tired is a common yet preventable cause of collisions. Ensure you are not drowsy driving by getting enough sleep the night before you are planning to drive. Things like alcohol, prescription medication and some over the counter medicines can also increase drowsiness, lower attentiveness and impair judgement. It goes without saying that you should never drive under the influence of alcohol but if you are on any medicines, be sure to check the side effects for drowsiness.
  • Aggressive and competitive driving is also a major source of congestion and unfortunately, it is a cyclical effect, with bad traffic causing people to become antagonistic and angry whilst trying to get to their destination. This kind of driving endangers yourself, your passengers and other road users, doing nothing to reduce congestion and only increases the likelihood of accidents.