University Boulevard in Silver Spring, June 15, 2017, 7:20 pm. Image by the author.

Drivers in the DC area are really aggressive. Some of this may be due to poor road design, which can often encourage high speeds and embolden reckless behavior. I’ve also wondered whether the nature of being inside an enclosed, powerful machine may in itself engender an anti-social mindset. To what extent is bad driving a result of externalities, and how much is innate, and how can we possibly separate the two?

Or, put another way: is driving making you (and me) a bad person, and what can we do about it? While we can improve roadway design, we should also be more mindful of how we behave and react to transgressions on the road.

Shortly after I moved to this area, I had one of those experiences that are iconic of getting around in this place. I was driving my small sedan and had just pulled into a left lane to turn into the short access road leading to the building in downtown Silver Spring where I lived at the time. I had on a turn signal, and started to turn my wheel.

Suddenly, a minivan pulled around my car, blocked me in the turn lane, and turned left in front of me. I watched as it turned left again into the parking for a neighboring complex. I turned my own car away from it and into the separate garage for my building. Our destinations had been entirely different, and the other driver’s behavior had not provided any real advantage. So why break an obvious traffic law to pull ahead of and in front of a turning car?

Having lived here now for several years, I realize the better question is: why not? There are rarely negative consequences to this type of behavior. It’s almost entirely anonymous. I didn’t catch a face, and I wasn’t in a position to take down a license plate. Traffic police don’t seem obviously interested in enforcement of this kind. Where would they even start?

Everyone I’ve met in the DC metro has a similar story. You have a story too. It’s often an out of state plate, or at least someone who doesn't live nearby -- probably a Maryland driver. It's never your neighbor, and you of course know better, so it won't be you.

A colleague tells me she's become hesitant about yielding to pedestrians at unsignaled crosswalks ever since she was rear-ended a few years ago. Here's the dilemma: you may choose to stop, but others might not. It's then unsurprising that many parents are afraid to let their children walk alone to school or to the park, and those who dare are at risk for social and sometimes legal censure.

The state highways near my home, characteristic of those in the suburban areas all over our region, are designed to facilitate high traffic volumes. However, they’re also lined with houses, businesses, schools, and bus stops. These roads are rarely congested. I notice many drivers going freeway speeds, weaving without signaling, only to slam to a stop at red lights.

When I wait at one of the bus stops, I feel a continuous breeze from these speeding cars. If I’m walking with a friend, we can’t converse, but must keep vigilant. What is to prevent these vehicles from accidentally breaching the often too short curb? Will they choose to brake at a signalized crosswalk, or barrel right through?

I cross these streets quickly, untrusting. The road is too wide, the turning radius too forgiving. We can blame the traffic engineers or the state code. That’s kinder than blaming the drivers, who could very well, on another day, be ourselves.

University Boulevard, May 15, 2015, 8:23 am Image by the author.

Three times so far this year, I’ve walked to the bus stop near my house to find the road blocked by emergency vehicles. Three head-on crashes; turning traffic meeting straight traffic where a state highway meets a two-lane local cut-through. On one occasion, a through traffic lane was not obstructed, so I was able to get onto a local bus, which was almost immediately side-swiped by an impatient driver swerving around the pre-existing crash scene. So much for everyone’s morning commute. Might as well go home, crawl back into bed, and try again the next day.

I reported this intersection to the Maryland SHA, and they promised they’d study it this summer. Coincidentally, shortly afterwards, I noticed the speed limit of the state road near the intersection had been lowered from 40 mph to 35 mph, which would bring it in line with the designated limit for roads abutting residential areas in the state code. The section that passes through the Wheaton business district has also been lowered to 30 mph, the designated limit for commercial areas.

However, the speed limit in the nearby Four Corners commercial area, and past Montgomery Blair and Northwood High Schools, was only lowered to 35 mph, and the speed limit on the cross road, Colesville Road (Route 29), remains 40 mph.

It might not really matter. A driver will go as fast as they are comfortable, and the road is designed to hold traffic at much higher speeds.

When you’re driving, the other entities on the road are obstacles. By contrast, when you’re walking, you're more likely to nod politely to a stranger in your neighborhood; you may make a neutral comment about the weather, smile at a baby or try to pet a puppy.

You probably don’t make small talk with other drivers. It’s kind of a ludicrous thought when you’re cocooned in your shiny metal casing, getting to your destination as fast as you can. Sometimes you honk, unaware and uncaring of whether the other driver is confused, or lost, or struggling with a needy child. Your fellow travelers are reduced to a license plate or car make. That mom-mobile with Ohio plates, that jerk in the Lexus. Get out of my way. And don't ever get between me and my free parking.

For those of us who don't drive as often, it’s tempting to think of those in gas guzzlers as worse people. They’re not just destroying the environment, they’re also ruining our community. They are the reason why we don’t know our neighbors, why children no longer run free but must be shuttled in cars to predetermined playdates, and why our country is doomed. Cars don't kill people, but we can't help but point out that angry people driving cars sometimes do.

Of course drivers have stories too: of entitled pedestrians who don’t wait for the light, or cyclists who don’t signal and cross multiple lanes of traffic and expect all others to give way. It's become a race to the bottom, where bad behavior licenses worse.

We recently got around to downsizing to one vehicle. I’ve started driving my husband’s SUV. I've noticed how easy it is to go faster, seated at a higher perch. I notice that I get cut off less often. I wonder if this is what it feels like to be a tall white man all the time. I become conscious of the vast distance between me and the road, and how insulated I am from others around me, to the extent that I sometimes don't notice to stop for pedestrians, even at marked crosswalks. But, no one can hurt me. I can see why it would be seductive. 

Maybe one day we’ll all switch to using autonomous electric vehicles and there'll no longer be any drivers. Universal basic income will mean that we’ll all be able to afford to call a ride whenever we want. We’ll sit in these automated pods, perhaps sharing a trip with our neighbors and building community. We’ll be driven to parks to go for walks or bike rides from the bikeshare where the car drops us off.

Or maybe not. Right now, there’s a crash almost every day somewhere close to you. Some of these crashes involve pedestrians and cyclists. And many involve the elderly or children.

Here at Greater Greater Washington we often talk about ways to make our roads safer. Yes, we can and must increase enforcement, bump out curbs, lower speed limits, and slim down our streets. But I don’t believe we can solve this problem by policy alone. We can all do better. Driving a car here doesn’t have to make you a bad person. Ultimately, it's up to you.