Nautilus

Traffic Ghost Hunting

Few experiences on the road are more perplexing than phantom traffic jams. Most of us have experienced one: The vehicle ahead of you suddenly brakes, forcing you to brake, and making the driver behind you brake. But, soon afterward, you and the cars around you accelerate back to the original speed—and it becomes clear that there were no obstacles on the road, and apparently no cause for the slowdown.

Because traffic quickly resumes its original speed, phantom traffic jams usually don’t cause major delays. But neither are they just minor nuisances. They are hot spots for accidents because they force unexpected braking. And the unsteady driving they cause is not good for your car, causing wear and tear and poor gas mileage.

So what is going on, exactly? To answer this question mathematicians, physicists, and traffic engineers have

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