What causes traffic jams?

Traffic is probably the most frustrating thing you will experience as a driver. One moment you’re cruising the speed limit and the next you’re barely moving. What is the cause of this phenomenon? Believe it or not, it essentially boils down to physics.

The science of a traffic jam

When combined with congested roadways, the tunnel vision and delayed reaction of drivers can really slow down traffic, not to mention selfish drivers. When a driver darts in and out of lanes because they are impatient and want to move faster than the rest of the traffic, they cause the drivers they cut in front of to have to step on their brakes, and the people behind them to step on their brakes, and so on and so on.

This domino effect impedes the flow of traffic, causing the lane to significantly slow down. The other lanes are moving at a faster pace so drivers in the slower lane try to quickly cut over. As a result, the other lanes start slowing down and eventually a traffic jam occurs. But quick lane changes aren’t the only culprit. People who text and drive or tailgate, and thus have to step on their brakes often, also contribute to slowed traffic.

Ultimately, traffic jams are caused by inconsistent and disrupted driving speeds. Traffic would slow better if people paid better attention to the cars in front of them, left enough space between them and the car in front so other cars can get in if they need to, merging in a timely matter, and if they drove the correct speed limit.

Check out the video below to see this concept illustrated.