Thursday, June 19, 2008

Gallons Per Mile makes more sense

Now that gas is over $4 and people with one-hour commutes are pouring more into their tanks than they are into their mortgages, a lot of Americans are looking again at the cars out in the garage and wondering if there's a better way...

Should we trade mom's Corolla for a Smart Car, or reluctantly pry our hands off the helm of the mighty 10 mpg Excursion and get a dumpy old station wagon?

If you're only looking at the federally mandated Miles per Gallon sticker, it's going to be hard to make the right choice, argue Fuqua School of Business management professors Richard Larrick and Jack Soll. In a series of simple experiments, they showed that people made much more accurate choices about cars if the efficiency was expressed as gallons per 100 miles, rather than mpg.

But don't just take their word for it -- try the interactive quiz!

These guys are on to something. Watch for them all over the airwaves in the coming week.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Distracting Miss Daisy

British born Duke psychologist John Staddon has an essay in the July/August Atlantic Monthly which makes the argument that the American love for traffic signs of all shapes, colors and sizes is ineffective at best and downright counterproductive in many cases. Ditto for many speed limits.

Staddon, the James B Duke Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and professor of Biology and Neurobiology, is not merely an anarchist. He has made his career out of studying adaptive behavior -- how animals and humans change what they've been doing in response to a new stimulus. So, between that and learning to drive on the wrong side -- and in North Carolina no less -- he's got some bona fides on the topic. "Collectively, the forests of signs along American roadways, and the multitude of rules to look out for, are quite deadly," he says.

What, Staddon asks reasonably, is the point of all these ridiculous signs that aren't even in the roadway, where the driver's eyes really should be focused? He writes:

Consider the stop sign. It seems innocuous enough; we do need to stop from time to time. But think about how the signs are actually set up and used. For one thing, there’s the placement of the signs—off to the side of the road, often amid trees, parked cars, and other road signs; rarely right in front of the driver, where he or she should be looking.

Then there’s the sheer number of them. They sit at almost every intersection in most American neighborhoods. In some, every intersection seems to have a four-way stop. Stop signs are costly to drivers and bad for the environment: stop/start driving uses more gas, and vehicles pollute most when starting up from rest. More to the point, however, the overabundance of stop signs teaches drivers to be less observant of cross traffic and to exercise less judgment when driving—instead, they look for signs and drive according to what the signs tell them to do.

American drivers have become so reliant on being told what to do at every curve and intersection that they seem to lose the ability to make their own decisions, he argues.

At the very least, he says, let's consider more roundabouts instead of four-way stops, and markings in the pavement, not on a stick off to the side.

It's fascinating, provocative stuff. ...Does the Secretary of Transportation need to be American by birth?!

SEE ALSO - July 8, 2008 - Signs blamed for highway crash

Monday, June 16, 2008

Lemur Health & Conservation

I'd like you to meet Meredith Barrett. She's a grad student in Duke's program in ecology with Lemur Center Director Anne Yoder and she's doing some very interesting work on the health of animals that are on the fringes of human encroachment.

You won't be able to meet Meredith in person -- at least not until September -- because she's on the other side of the world right now, doing field work in Madagascar. Her work involves gently trapping and darting lemurs on the forest edge and quickly taking several measures of their health status, including a physical and dental exam, a snip of hair, and yes, fecal material. (They're apparently quite willing to donate that last bit, she says.) Her hypothesis is that animal populations probably suffer from human encroachment even before the humans have actually taken away their habitat. Proving this may help inform policy about how and where to create sanctuaries.

Meredith will be taking us along on her field work and living conditions in this strange and wonderful island through a blog: Lemur Health and Conservation. Connectivity is sure to be a frustration, but as you might have noticed, Meredith is pretty game for tough conditions. She might even be able to post some video. Stay tuned!