Even though Rick Santorum and 98% of Texans claims that it’s un-American to do so, in my opinion, when a man is wrong, he should apologize.
With that in mind, I would like to take this opportunity to formally and publicly apologize to the people of Las Vegas.
You see, once upon a time, I bestowed the title of “Worst Drivers in America” upon the people of that city, and I’m here to tell you that I was wrrrrrrrrrr. I was wrrrrrrrrrr. I … express regret that my words may have been less than accurate.
Over the past few months, I’ve been involved in an intensive, immersive, up-close relationship with Seattle traffic, and I have come to the conclusion that Seattle drivers are the most confused, most unskilled, most inattentive drivers in the United States of America. In my mind, it’s no longer even debatable. At this point in time, calling Seattle drivers the worst drivers in the country is as controversial as stating that three is the square root of nine.
“Oh sure Rex, you think the drivers in your city are worse than everywhere else, but who doesn’t? Everyone says that!”
Fair enough, and there is no doubt that there is some truth to that statement. However, I’ve lived in a few places over the course of my lifetime, and I never leveled this charge against the drivers of NYC, DC, or Los Angeles. To the contrary, while traffic in those towns was bad, most of the drivers possessed a basal level of urban driving skill that no Seattle driver can claim.
If you think about it, this actually makes some sense.
On the East Coast, people know how to drive in the city. Even the suburbanites and ruralites. They have to. You can’t spit on the east coast without hitting a city. Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, New York, Hartford, Boston … city driving is part of life over there. The same is true of California to a large extent. Los Angeles County is one huge grid of city. In fact, the LA Metro area is actually more densely populated than is the NYC Metro area.
The Seattle area, with a density of only 500 people-per-square-mile, however, is quite rural. Outside of the 2 square miles that make up Seattle’s urban core, there are no areas in the Pacific Northwest where a driver would encounter inner-city, quasi-Manhattan-esqe driving conditions. As such, our neighbors are simply unfamiliar with the urban driving paradigm.
Also, since inner-Seattle is so geographically small, and residents of the core walk and bike everywhere, close to 100% of inner-Seattle traffic is comprised of tourists; people who do not live here.
Seattle rush hours are comprised of 300,000 suburban drivers attempting to make their way into and out of a maze of one-way streets, traffic lights, and parallel parking spaces … and most of them have no idea what they are supposed to do. As far as they are concerned, driving in Kirkland and driving in Downtown Seattle is the exact same thing. They are, to put it nicely, rubes.
This, in a nutshell, is why drivers in Seattle, and especially Downtown Seattle, are so comically awful.
When I say “awful”, though, what do I mean?
After all, isn’t such a word subjective? In order for one group of drivers to be worse than another, wouldn’t their behavior need to be, in some manner, different?
The answer is that Seattle drivers do, indeed, have peculiarities that I have never experienced in any other city, state, or nation, at least not to the same extent … and these peculiarities are the overwhelming cause of Seattle’s traffic problems.
So, what are they? What are these terrible driving habits of which I speak?
The first is what I have come to call the “Seattle Surrender”, and it’s by far the most prevalent driving trait you will encounter in Seattle’s urban core.
“What is the Seattle Surrender?”, you ask.
The Seattle Surrender is when, for no apparent reason, the driver in front of you simply abandons the task of driving. He or she literally gives up, both physically and mentally. They surrender. It is arguably the most bizarre driving habit I’ve seen anywhere.
Picture this: You are driving down 1st Avenue at 25Mph with a line of cars behind you, when all of a sudden the driver in front of you does one of two things:
1) Hits her brakes, and simply stops in your lane of travel. She doesn’t pull over, she simply stops for no apparent reason at all. She stays there indefinitely, refusing to move even when you lay on your horn.
2) Takes her foot off the gas and lets her car roll to a slow, gradual stop. Depending on the incline of the road, she may slowly roll through 3-4 green lights before finally coming to a rest.
On Downtown Seattle streets, the Seattle Surrender is ubiquitous. In the course of an average day, I encounter the Surrender no fewer than 20 times. I’ll be driving along when the person in front of me either slows to a crawl or just stops, without notice, or any visible reason.
Check this out …
For the purposes of this article, I decided to record a single trip down First Avenue. While sitting at a stoplight at 1st and Pike, I turned on my dash camera, and I made a single recording. This was the VERY FIRST CAR I ENCOUNTERED:
Download Video: MP4
That, dear readers, is a completely accurate representation of completely NORMAL Seattle driving. Actually, it’s better than normal. This person is actually one of our better drivers, as it took them longer to surrender than most. When confronted with a decision of any kind, most Seattle drivers would have immediately stopped in their tracks. This person, to their credit, at least gave it a few blocks.
Picture this: You are driving down First Avenue when all of a sudden traffic stops. Just completely grinds to a halt. You look at the clock, and it’s 11:15am.
“Gee”, you say, “it’s awfully early for rush hour, why has traffic stopped?”
Confused, you sit there. And you sit there. Finally, you roll down your window, stick your head out, and you see the problem.
Up ahead, a driver has her reverse lights on. You see, she spotted an empty parking space, and just like her Driver’s Ed teacher at Bumbletwat High School taught her, she is trying to back into it.
The problem is, there is only one lane of travel, there are 7 cars behind her, and the only way she can possibly get into the space is if all 7 of us also throw our cars into reverse.
So, why is she still sitting there?
Because, believe it or not, this is exactly what she expects us to do. Instead of going around the block, or nosing into the space, she expects us all to back up and make room for her parallel parking attempt. A Mexican standoff ensues until one driver after another gets frustrated and crosses the yellow line, risking a head-on collision, to go around her.
This happens somewhere between 10-15 times per day, and no, I am not exaggerating.
While drivers in other major cities know to nose-in, wait for a clearing, and then straighten up … such behavior is unheard of in Seattle. Everyone parks suburban-style, and if that means causing multi-block backups or accidents, so be it.
Then, there is the Stoplight Spaceout.
Picture this: You’v got ten minutes to get from Pioneer Square to LQA, so you point your car north on 1st Avenue and hit the gas. When you get to Spring Street, the light is red, so you queue up behind the five other cars in front of you.
Finally, the light turns green, at which point … nothing happens. The five cars in front of you just sit there, immobile. The seconds tick by, six, seven, eight, and finally you tap the horn.
Still nothing … twelve, thirteen, fourteen.
Finally, you lay on the horn, beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep and FINALLY the first car begins inching forward. Then, the second car begins moving, then the third. Oh thank god, it’s finally your turn to go, and you begin to move forward just as the light is turning yellow.
You won’t make it without risking a ticket. Another three minutes of your life down the drain.
I don’t know. Nobody knows. You’d better get used to it, though.
Much like the Seattle Surrender, this is another case where Seattle drivers simply cease driving at random times. They may be texting, they may be reading, they may be … who knows what they’re doing … all I know is that the task of driving no longer interests them, so they simply stop doing it.
Next, there is the Box Block.
Picture this: You are driving north on 6th Avenue, approaching Pike Street, when you notice that traffic on the other side of the intersection is stopped. Knowing that you will not make it all the way through the intersection, you stop at the green light.
A woman in the BMW to your immediate left is confused by your behavior. She doesn’t understand why you have not pulled behind the car in front of you. “Are you Seattle Surrendering?”, she wonders.
Annoyed by your obvious stupidity, she drives past you, illegally changes lanes in the intersection, and pulls up to the rear bumper of the car in front of you. Not content to sit behind a non-driving jackass like you, the Escalade behind you angrily pulls around, and stops behind Princess in the BMW just as the light is turning red.
For the next 4 minutes, nobody moves. Traffic in all directions, for 5 blocks at least, is completely immobile.
Because the intersection is blocked, of course. You tried to do the right thing, but you just couldn’t save the other Seattle drivers from themselves. You never can.
Now look, I know that the last one happens everywhere. It’s the very definition of “gridlock”. What is astounding, however, is the complete ubiquity of this behavior in Downtown Seattle day after day after day after day.
Seattle is the only city on the planet that can have a traffic jam with only 10 cars in the same zip code. Just like life in Jurassic Park, abhorrent driving finds a way.
Five to ten times per day, I encounter drivers who are driving the wrong way on a one-way street. It happens so often that, from a safety perspective, I treat all streets as two-way, regardless of what the signs say. I always look both ways when crossing, and I try to always drive in the right lane of a one-way street.
Once upon a time, When I encountered a wrong-way driver, I used to honk, flash my lights, and point in the correct direction of travel, but now … I just pull to the right and let them pass. Nothing can be done. Expecting a Seattle driver to read a traffic sign is like expecting your dog to master Calculus. It’s not going to happen, and any efforts to alter that reality are futile.
These five points, while most common, are really only the tip of the iceberg. I could go on. I swear. For instance, ‘rubbernecking’ in Seattle is like nothing, NOTHING you’ve ever seen anywhere else. If someone dares change a tire on the side of the road here, traffic will stack up for 10 miles in all directions as every passing commuter slows down to bask in the disabled motorist’s misfortune. Talk about an easily amused populace.
This, my fellow Seattleites, is why the town is doomed to gridlock. Forever. It’s a large reason why, with some disappointment, I turned in the cab and called it a career. Driving here is futile, and the problem is out of our hands. It’s patently unfixable.
You see, we don’t have a shortage of roads, and a deep-bore tunnel under Downtown is not going to solve our transit problems. A new 520 bridge isn’t going to decrease commute times either, hell, 20 bridges across Lake Washington wouldn’t solve our issues.
99% of Seattle’s traffic woes are caused by poorly-skilled, self-centered, inattentive drivers from outside of Seattle. People with little to no city driving experience, and people whom, when faced with yet another traffic jam … will routinely blame someone else (such as bicyclists or Mike McGinn). There is no amount of money we can throw at this problem to fix it, because you simply can’t fix stupid.
The other day, I was driving home from the Eastside when I encountered the following sign on Bellevue Way:
An hour later, I found myself sitting here:
These two pictures really say it all.
I hang my keyboard.