Do D.C. area drivers take rude behavior in stride? And would that be so bad?


In the District, downtown intersections are notorious for drivers who block the box, creating citywide gridlock. A drivers’ study in May placed the D.C. area among the five “least courteous” in the nation, in addition to Baltimore, Houston, Atlanta and Boston. (Michael Robinson-Chavez/The Washington post)
Robert Thomson
Columnist July 9

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I had a friend visiting from England recently. We were on the Capital Beltway, and I had a very typical D.C. driving experience: Trying to merge into the right lane and the car in the next lane not only would not let me in, but sped up, crossed in front of me and zoomed into the lane to my left. An everyday occurrence here, and I didn’t think twice about it.

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

My English friend, though, declared the driver to be “rude.” Rude? Yikes, that’s just the norm here, I said. Since that day, I’ve been pondering her comment and have to wonder just how rude are our fellow Washington drivers compared to drivers elsewhere? I’m afraid we’ve become immune to rudeness.

Renee Domogauer, College Park

DG: There are surveys on this sort of thing, but they leave me wanting to know more. They’re based in part on drivers speculating about the motives of other drivers. When motorists are interviewed about their own behavior, they tend to rate themselves as above average. The milk of human kindness flows through their engines. (Saves on gas.)

When they rate the behavior of others, they are not so forgiving. In most cases, you will never know for sure what the badly behaving driver was thinking. In fact, I urge you not to attempt to find out. Just keep going.

While that puts a damper on road rage, it limits the potential for research. Usually, we can’t even see their faces, let alone interview them, so we’re free to assume the worst.

We tend to exercise that freedom.

Early in his career, Steven Spielberg directed a thriller about a road rage incident involving a car driver and a tailgating tanker truck. Part of what made “Duel” so creepy for viewers was that they never got to see the face of the trucker. They allowed the tanker truck itself to embody the evil lurking behind the windshield.

Thankfully, our daily experiences are much more mundane, but think how much we read into types of vehicles and license plates when assessing other drivers’ motives.

That’s my warning about survey data. Now, let me tell you about the driver rudeness surveys.

AutoAdvantage, a roadside assistance service, released a study in May that placed the D.C. area among the five “least courteous” in the nation. According to the drivers responding in the survey, we’ve lost ground since the 2009 rankings, dropping 16 notches into greater discourtesy compared with other regions.

Also, Baltimore drivers apparently are getting worse. They have joined the District in the worst five, having plummeted from their ranking among the five “most courteous” in the 2009 survey. It’s unclear exactly what went wrong in Charm City during the interval. The 2014 survey of drivers’ views on other drivers was conducted between March 27 and April 4.

Rounding out this year’s Bad Five were drivers in Houston, Atlanta and Boston. Where do you have to go to find some peace among your fellow drivers? Start with Portland, Ore.; Pittsburgh; St. Louis; San Francisco; and Charlotte.

Here’s where D.C. drivers go wrong, according to the respondents:  

They’re the second most likely in the survey to see someone else cutting between lanes with no warning and the second most likely to acknowledge performing the same behavior. They’re also the second most likely to admit speeding. They’re tied with Phoenix and Tampa for third place with drivers most likely to see someone else tailgating.

The latter category is an example of where I fear the observing drivers have some maneuvering room. Based on the self-reporting patterns I’ve seen in travelers’ letters over the years, the drivers directly behind us are relentless tailgaters, while the drivers immediately ahead are impeding the flow of traffic.

Another recent survey done for Expedia, the online travel service, describes itself as a nationwide report on road rage, listing the types of behavior most likely to infuriate other drivers.

What annoyed drivers the most was texting, e-mailing or talking on a phone while driving. But they also hate these behaviors: tailgating, multitasking, drifting or weaving among lanes, driving well below the speed limit, failing to signal when changing lanes, hogging the left lane, failing to let other drivers merge, speeding, pounding on the horn, failing to acknowledge a courtesy and inching up closer to the stop line while a light is red.

Those certainly are behaviors that show up among drivers in the D.C. region, and the list includes the activities that so annoyed Domogauer’s visitor. Though we can’t interview the offending driver on motive, it’s easy to accept this as “rude” behavior.

Domogauer worries about her own response, for what it might imply about driver rudeness becoming so common that we simply accept it.

But there’s also an up side in her response to the other driver: She took the matter in stride and kept going. There are a limited number of things we can control in traffic, but one of them is our own response to others’ bad driving. We have the potential to make things so much worse by giving in to flashes of emotion on the road.

Domogauer fears her response indicated complacency. I think it indicated maturity.

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