It's Official: DC Has the Worst Drivers Anywhere

I can't say I'm surprised to learn that my current city has the worst drivers in the country.

I learned to drive in New York City, which is sort of like learning to drive by enrolling in the Grand Prix.  My family had a 1977 Chrysler Cordoba*, and a minivan; for my first weeks of driver training, I might as well have been trying to parallel park the Love Boat.  Steering these behemoths through New York City traffic required a certain daredevil insouciance, not to say indifference to one's own mortality.

I will never forget my father's loud cheer the first time I forced the minivan over to merge in heavy traffic, in front of a taxicab which had been attempting to speed up rather than lose four whole seconds by letting me get into the turn lane.  The cab driver slammed on his brakes, we slid smoothly into the slot, and my father said "Yes!  You did your first cab!"

All of which is to say, I know from aggressive driving.  Even so, moving to DC was a shock.

It was snowing the day I moved here, and the drivers seemed to have gone insane.  Half of them seemed unaware that while their four-wheel-drive would indeed help them go faster in snow, it wouldn't do anything for their stopping power; those folks were going far too fast for the slippery conditions.  The other half of the drivers were inching along as if the white flakes falling in front of their car were radioactive.   These two types of drivers were sharing all the names, rather than neatly sorting themselves into "timid" and "insane" lanes the way DC drivers usually do.  The result was utter chaos.  I walked wherever possible.  Well away from the curb.

It was then that I formed my first theory about DC drivers:  "Wow," I thought, "They've never seen snow before."

Like most first theories, this turned out to be erroneous, and I subsequently revised it.  Within a week, I had a new theory.  "Wow," I thought.  "They've never seen cars before."

DC drivers are extraordinarily aggressive.  I once found myself in an actual game of chicken--driving between two lines of cars, with nowhere to pull over, and an enormous SUV barreling past empty spaces where the driver could have pulled over, straight towards me at probably 40 mph.  For the first, and hopefully last, time in my life, I executed the highly unwise 40 mph-reverse until I was clear of the cars and could pull over to let the lunatic pass.

But that is an extraordinary case, and it is the ordinary cases which are so, well, extraordinary.  The people who will gaily execute U turns across four lanes of heavy traffic.  The traffic circles where the incoming traffic refuses to yield to the traffic already in the circle, with predictible results.  The folks who think it is only natural to block the box at intersections. The people who seem to think (I am not making this up) that if you are on a wider, faster street than the cross street, only the people on the cross street should have to obey the four-way stop sign.

Perhaps I am projecting, but while in New York the other drivers seem supremely indifferent to your existence, DC drivers seem to actively seethe with palpable rage at finding other people expecting them to share the road.

I could not have imagined, before I moved to DC, that I would find driving through New York City traffic soothing.  But this is exactly how I do feel, when I drive back to New York.  New York City drivers are extremely aggressive and numerous, but they are rational and predictable.  I never feel like I don't know what a cab driver is about to do; of course, he's about to try to cut me off at around 35 miles per hour.  But he isn't about to pull over into the left lane of a major thoroughfare at 35 miles per hour, slam on the brakes, and back up traffic for fifteen minutes while he waits for an opening in opposing traffic so that he can pull into the hotel driveway across the street.  Because even a New York City cab driver can recognize that that would be insane.

Over time, I have developed more theories about why DC drivers are so bad.  I do not think, as Doug Mataconis does, that the inadequacy of the infrastructure has much to do with it; New York is less dangerous despite much worse overcrowding on the roadways.  Rather, I think there are two big problems.

The first is that DC's traffic management is extraordinarily bad, in part because planners can never decide whether they want to slow things down or speed them up.  Any number of multi-lane, high-throughput streets suddenly turn from two-way to one way, or one way to one-way-the-other-way--the sort of thing that is supposed to calm traffic, but mostly enrages drivers.  The lights, too, are designed so that you can't get very far before you run into a red.  Rather than producing slow, steady traffic, this produces a bevy of anxious drivers going 30 in the middle of the block and 5 at either end.  This is much less safe than the way New York has things set up, where if you go at roughly a steady 30 miles per hour, you can get uptown without running into many red lights.  Meanwhile, since pedestrians and other cars know what speed to expect, traffic has a predictible flow rather than a bipolar frenzy.

The other reason I suspect we are so bad is that DC's population is so transient.  New York has a big transient population, but it also has an enormous local population, which sustains a driving culture into which the transients must fit.  There are strong local norms about things like merging, when to slowdown for a yellow light, and so forth, which newcomers are eventually forced to learn.  "Learning to drive like a New Yorker" is a sort of rite of passage, like knowing where to get good bagels.  People who arrive from elsewhere may lament the aggression of New York drivers, but they also recognize that navigating within the system is a skill that must be acquired, and they're a little proud when they master it.

DC, on the other hand, has grown enormously, importing new drivers who come with their own driving culture.  People around here talk about how bad DC drivers are, but they don't talk about "driving in DC" as a particular skill.  People don't seem to recognize that they need a new set of traffic skills to navigate around here--and they don't, because there doesn't seem to be a coherent set of skills they could acquire.  If there are shared norms about who has the right of way in borderline situations, I haven't been able to divine what they are.

This, of course, means more accidents, because people don't know when other people are going to yield.  But it's actually more serious than that, because it seems to me that people who move here become more aggressive over time.  As I've blogged before, though norms are essentially arbitrary, we get very angry at people we think are violating them.  We may act aggressively in attempted retaliation; or we may simply decide it's every man for himself, and there's no reason to obey traffic rules unless there's actually a cop right there.

* Yes, that Cordoba: