It started out with the Allstate Insurance Company releasing its annual list of America’s best drivers by city recently, based on collision claims made to Allstate and number of crashes per capita. The winner was Sioux Falls, S.D. Bully for them.
Setting aside the traffic anarchy that can be the District of Columbia, we address the more important question: Can the drivers of Alexandria and Arlington really be national leaders in car wrecks? The streets don’t seem littered with battered autos, suburban rules of etiquette seem to be in effect. Perhaps it’s just that Allstate’s drivers are worse here than GEICO’s or USAA’s drivers. Or Allstate drivers are more willing to file claims than those with The General or some fly-by-night outfit.
But here’s how I know the list is faulty: Allstate cited Kansas City, Mo., as one of the safest large metro areas. I know from personal experience this is wildly, utterly wrong. Kansas City drivers are the worst in the United States, bar none. I had many years of experience driving there. I was slammed into several times by bad K.C. drivers. I would leave for vacation, and immediately know I was back in K.C. as soon as I crossed the city line and someone stupidly cut me off or pulled in front of me from a side street with no one behind me for miles. That is officially called “Pulling a Kansas City.”
My former colleague Jeff Spivak at the Kansas City Star once statistically documented that Kansas City, per capita, had the worst drivers in America, taking into account the high number of crashes and fatalities compared to the low amount of traffic. For those who care, his article is after the jump. For those in Alexandria and Arlington, take heart. You’ll never be as bad as Kansas City.
Kansas City behind the wheel
The daydreaming, lane-changing, slow-as-turtles, faster-than-hares drivers who make it so pleasant to be on the streets
By JEFFREY SPIVAK
You’re driving along Brookside Boulevard in the right lane. The car ahead slows. Then it stops. And it backs up to turn onto the street the driver missed. You swerve to avoid it.
That’s a Kansas City driver.
You’re humming along Interstate 435 in the left lane. The car ahead doesn’t waver from 55 mph. It doesn’t move over, either. Finally you pass on the right, and the other driver glances at you with a frown, as if to scold, “You’re speeding.”
That’s also a Kansas City driver.
You’re approaching Metcalf Avenue on 95th Street. The traffic light turns green. Cars speed up to make it. Then the car ahead slows. And it stops. At a green light.
That’s another one.
Driving. It’s one of life’s universally shared experiences, like the weather. It’s dangerous. It’s delightful. It’s nerve-racking. Tens of thousands of people maneuver mechanized boxes on narrow paths with varying degrees of skill.
Except in Kansas City, we’re worse at it than in most American cities.
Warren Ramsey does, and he should know. He makes his living driving this city. “Kansas City drivers are bad, “ says the deliveryman for Quick Delivery Inc. “They’ve got poor habits, and they don’t seem to care.”
Kansas City offers a distinctive sort of driver: not so much a speeding and reckless one, but more a plodding and inattentive one.
Just check out the numbers.
Motorists in Kansas City bend fenders and crunch metal more per person than drivers in most other large American cities, the National Safety Council reports. Kansas City has 63.5 accidents for every 1,000 people, while, Seattle, for example, has 40, and Phoenix, 26.8.
The same pattern holds for traffic death rates. Among the country’s 40 biggest cities, only Boston, Miami and Atlanta rank higher than Kansas City.
So what’s the deal? This can’t be because the volume of Kansas City traffic produces pileups. A 1989 Texas Department of Transportation study of 50 metropolitan areas ranked us the nation’s second least-congested area. And the Mid-America Regional Council reports that rush-hour travel times keep dropping in Kansas City as more freeway lanes open.
It can’t be because Kansas Citians drive like daredevils. The Federal Highway Administration ranked Missouri 38th out of 50 states in the percentage of drivers who exceed 55 mph. Merely 67 percent do it.
Kansans? Well, they’re up at 80 percent, fast enough for eighth place.
It could be because of our driving habits. Gracious and polite, we generally are. But knowledgeable and conscientious, we often aren’t.
Much of the proof is anecdotal.
Listen to Rick Bradshaw. He has a better perspective than most. He pilots a single-engine Cessna 172 for the Airborne Traffic Network, the reporters heard on radio stations. As the desk-size seating compartment wobbles in the air, he examines an afternoon rush hour.
Interstate 70 is slow as usual. But it’s the left lane — the supposed fast lane — that is stopped. “Look at that, “ Bradshaw says as he points. “Ninety percent of the time it will be the slowest, and I’ve never understood it.
“They get in that lane and retire.”
As he loops the plane back toward Downtown, he notices a line of cars heading north on the Broadway Extension. They’re crawling for no apparent reason. “It’s just like two cars driving really slow, “
“That’s what we lovingly refer to as a bonehead backup. All it takes is one person who’s not in a hurry along with 53,000 who are in a hurry for a bonehead backup.”
Now consider Ramsey, the delivery driver. He has driven for the same company 11 years, an eternity in the delivery industry. When he gets up every morning, he tells himself, “No wrecks, no tickets.” That’s why he keeps his delivery truck at a steady 60 mph in the right lane of Interstate 435.
But, oooh, do Kansas City drivers make him mad. They run red lights.
They drive without headlights in the early morning. They don’t signal turns.
Sometimes it’s more than he can stand.
“I got on one lady, “ Ramsey says. “We were driving on College Boulevard, and she seemed to be making the same turns I was, right in front of me. She never used her signal, and I’m in a hurry. Finally, we ended up at the same office.
“I asked her, `Your car have turn signals?’
“She said, `Yes.’
“I said, `Why don’t you use them? It’s the law and it’s considerate.’ “
He takes a breath. His white knuckles clutch the steering wheel. “It’s infuriating. It’s all consideration.”
Well, at least we don’t have a reputation for tailgating, as the drivers do in Miami. Or sitting in traffic jams for hours, as in Los Angeles. We do show our sweeter selves to drivers sometimes.
“We have it good, “ says Kevin Calhoun, a software engineer who moved here from New Jersey.
“In New Jersey you merge on the highway and hope you don’t get killed.
It’s much more cutthroat. Here, drivers are gracious. They generally let you in instead of accelerating.”
Alas, other new residents can’t believe what they see. Turning right from the middle lanes of Ward Parkway. Stopping at the end of highway entrance ramps. Racing to pass another car, then slowing down in front of it.
“There’s a different kind of stress here, “ says Alison Barnes, a photographer for Hallmark Cards Inc. who moved to Kansas City two years ago from Los Angeles.
“In LA it can’t be helped. It’s the traffic. Here, it’s sheer frustration out of people’s stupidity.”
Why? Why does such an easygoing city have such trouble driving?
Kansas City schools no longer teach driver education, goes one theory from safety experts. Our vast freeway network makes it so easy to get around the metro area that we drive more, and our limited mass transit system bonds us to our cars, goes a theory from Kansas City police officials. More miles behind the wheel mean more chances for accidents.
Here’s another theory: We might be too calm for our own good.
“I think an easygoing way is more vulnerable to accidents because you’re not paying attention to details, “ says Oscar Eggers, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“I mean, in driver’s ed they teach you to look across the dashboard and scan the mirrors every few seconds. Who does it?
“We’re nice and friendly, relative to the big cities, but maybe we can’t drive well.”