Area's No. 1 rank in traffic delays leaves a lot to curse about

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011

The rush-hour commute stinks, but you know that. There are too many cars on the road, but that's obvious. What you don't know is that you're twice as likely to encounter someone caught up in a bout of road rage and that nobody in the nation spends more time stuck in traffic than you do.

The number of drivers in the Washington region who say they frequently feel uncontrollable anger toward another driver has doubled in the past five years, according to a Washington Post poll taken last year. Almost a third of drivers said they're overcome with that wild rage from time to time.

One reason for that boiling frustration is contained in a report released Thursday, which found that Washington ranks first in the nation when it comes to hours wasted stuck in traffic.

The most sophisticated number crunching done on traffic congestion says the average Washington area driver loses 70 hours a year - almost three full days - crawling along in traffic, tying the region with Chicago for worst in the country. Los Angeles, the perennial king of congestion, comes in third, with 63 blown hours.

The news came in the annual national traffic survey done by the Texas Transportation Institute, a highly regarded research group based at Texas A&M University.

The nexus of road congestion and road rage might prove tenuous, but the fact that frustration can lead to anger is not. Very often, according to an earlier study by AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety, the traffic incident that turns violent is "the straw that broke the camel's back" for someone living a stress-filled life.

"Very slow or stationary traffic situations present typical conditions in which driver aggression can be allowed to reach detrimental levels," the foundation concluded.

As traffic has gotten more congested in Washington, the number of people who say they've felt uncontrollable road rage either frequently or occasionally has risen from 22 to 32 percent.

There is something of a silver lining to the news that Washington is at the top of the heap as far as big-city traffic congestion.

"We haven't been hit as hard by the recession as other major areas like Los Angeles," said Ron Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "Maybe we should be happy to be moving up the list because it means we're going a little bit better than a lot of other places when it comes to job growth and the economy."

Overall, the Texas Transportation Institute report concludes that congestion cost Americans $115 billion in 2009, up from $24 billion in 1982 when calculated in 2009 dollars. Engines idling in traffic gobbled up 3.9 billion gallons of gasoline. Nationally, congestion cost the average commuter $808, up from an inflation adjusted $351 in 1982. And the average time lost to congestion nationwide was 34 hours, up from 14 hours in 1982.

Researchers said the depth of the data used in this year's study far surpassed the quality of information used in past years, giving the results an unprecedented degree of accuracy.

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