As the summer driving season begins this weekend, Washington has again gained national recognition with the release of yet another survey showing we are the country’s worst drivers.
That’s right. The worst.
The latest report, by GMAC Insurance, measured knowledge of driving rules. A quiz included questions such as: Does a flashing red signal mean yield or stop? Does tailgating frustrate other drivers or help reduce traffic congestion? (Since many of you evidently need help with the subject, the correct answers are “stop” and “frustrates other drivers.”)
The District placed last in the study, which ranked it and the 50 states. Maryland was almost as bad, at 49th, while Virginia was in the middle at 25th.
A one-time thing, you say? District drivers did just as poorly in a separate survey last year by Allstate that measured likelihood of being in a collision. For the second straight year, Washington motorists were most likely to have an accident among those in the nation’s 193 largest cities — by a considerable margin. Baltimore drivers were right behind, at 192nd.
What explains this? Why doesn’t it bother us more, generate more outrage? Have we no shame?
As regular readers know, I’m fond of pointing out that the Washington area is the nation’s wealthiest, best-educated region. We host the capital of the world’s most powerful country. We should expect much of ourselves, set high standards.
When it comes to something as basic as everyday driving habits, however, we just can’t be bothered.
In fact, I think our wealth and influence, and above all our sense of self-importance, are to blame.
We think it’s so critical to finish that vital budget memo, or reach that key diplomat or lobbyist, or nail down that juicy federal contract, that we feel justified in cutting off someone when we merge. “Of course it’s okay to turn right from a left-hand lane,” we tell ourselves. After all, we neglected to slide over earlier only because we were so preoccupied with holding down health-care costs.
I found plenty of support for my analysis from a dozen drivers I interviewed in the waiting room of the Department of Motor Vehicles on M Street SW on Friday. Eight of the 12 were not surprised that surveys give the District low marks for driving ability.
“I’d like to know what took them so long,” said Sandra Ratiff, 51, a federal worker who lives in Southeast.
The most frequent explanation: Drivers here are too impatient and distracted.
“They don’t pay attention,” said Deborah Thompson, 55, a chef from Northeast. “A lot of them are talking on their cellphones. They don’t follow the rules, and lots of them ride on your bumper.”
Several motorists who’ve moved to the area in recent years have noticed that driving habits are different. The comparisons weren’t favorable.
“People are just always in a hurry,” said Matt Berger, 27, a federal worker from Northwest. “I’m from Indianapolis. There, there’s a lot more waving, a lot more people helping out.”
Although he was skeptical of the surveys, saying complaints about driving are common everywhere, Berger acknowledged that his own habits have deteriorated since he moved here.
“I don’t help people out as much, now that I live here,” he said. “I have places to be, too.”
Thurman Matthiesen, 45, a screenwriter and playwright who moved here from Los Angeles 13 months ago, said the problem wasn’t ignorance but indifference.
“I don’t think it’s so much lack of knowledge of the rules. It’s not caring about the rules,” Matthiesen said. “We’ve become such an aggressive, disrespectful society.”
Virginia residents might take satisfaction from the fact that their state fared better than the District and Maryland in the surveys. Based on my own experience, though, I see equally bad tailgating at high speeds on the Beltway on both sides of the Potomac.
AAA Mid-Atlantic was sufficiently concerned about distracted driving in Virginia during the big road construction projects underway there that it launched a campaign urging Northern Virginia employers not to contact their workers while on the road.
It acted because one of its own surveys of Washington-area drivers in November found that 44 percent had used a handheld cellphone while driving in the past six months. Nearly three out of five said they did so because they needed to provide an immediate response to their employers.
That’s the Washington way: Work comes first, safety second. Until that changes, driving will be one rare category where we rank at the bottom.