What’s wrong with Washington area’s drivers?

Robert Thomson
Columnist September 2, 2011

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Washington traffic, like Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” largely depends on the kindness of strangers. Each day, a core group of alert, polite, experienced drivers make adjustments that prevent potential chaos being caused by the lane-hoppers, multi-taskers, turn-signal phobes, NASCAR-wannabes, and other drivers unfettered by the rules of the road.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

During my five years in South Africa, I’d say 70 percent of drivers signaled their thanks by flashing their taillights. In five years back in the D.C. area, perhaps a dozen drivers have given a wave or nod of thanks for allowing them to merge, turn, pass or escape some predicament — and half of them had out-of-state plates. I surmise this is a combination of ignorance of, or disregard for, the rules of the road and the pervasive feeling of entitlement some drivers feel in this “capital of the world.” Is it too much to expect a tiny wave of thanks for a courtesy that lets you and the traffic move . . . and sometimes prevents an accident?

And what is behind the trend of drivers at traffic lights to halt 10, 20, 30, even 40 feet behind the nearest car? In our traffic-jammed streets with space at a premium, it is bewildering to see drivers halting one to three car lengths behind the next car.

— Will Shaw, Derwood

The question about the stopping distances comes up from time to time among letter writers, and I have a theory: Many drivers are uncertain what the driver ahead is going to do, so they leave room to pull around when the light turns green. Others may be concerned that a driver behind won’t stop in time and might push them into the car ahead. Others simply may not move up when the driver ahead decides to slide forward a bit.

I can’t be sure, because the letter writer is correct: We are all strangers in traffic, and most drivers don’t go out of their way to share information with other drivers, which would allow them to anticipate their next moves.

We rely instead on the traffic laws to help us anticipate what these strangers will do. Many drivers will play by the rules, or even go beyond them in politeness. A relatively small number become highly noticeable because they don’t play by the rules.

Coming over

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I’ve experienced three times in two weeks the dangerous new method of changing lanes. When drivers want to be in your lane, they just take it, even though you’re right next to them!

Twice in D.C. and once on Long Island, N.Y., I’ve had to stand my car on it’s nose to avoid being squished. I have more than 10 years of urban motorcycle experience, so my avoidance skills are strong. But I’m afraid my record of over 25 years of no accidents is hanging by a thread.

Are others experiencing this phenomenon?

— David King, Glover Park

Yes, from time to time. My most recent experience was with a driver heading into the side of my car during a morning commute on westbound Spencerville Road, at one of several points where it shrinks to a single lane after an intersection. There’s no excuse for it, but the demand created by so many commuters trying to squeeze into a limited supply of lanes creates an environment for such behavior.

A quicker fix

The next letter reflects on an exchange of views we had about long-term solutions to traffic congestion (Commuter page, July 9) but concludes we could take care of that a lot faster and cheaper if we look into ourselves.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Both proponents put forward some valid arguments as to how to fix our region’s traffic, but like every other expert who has written over the years on how to help the region, they overlook the cheaper, easier and more accountable fix : actual driving.

Everyday rush hour is worsened by at least one “accident” on the major arteries around here, and often crashes on minor roads have an effect to major roads. The quality of driving around here can be described at best as erratic.

Too many drive too close to the car in front; drivers are too easily distracted; signals are used to indicate what the driver is doing, rather than what the driver plans to do — if signals are used at all.

In no other profession is someone given a license and then never reassessed. Bad habits abound. What we need to improve traffic is better and continued driver education. This is a much easier and cheaper fix than widening roads or building mass transit.

A.J. Bownas, Arlington

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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