For this week’s column, we’re shaking things up and highlighting comments from people who say drivers in our region have their own style of getting around.
Compared with Los Angeles, Seattle drivers lack a sense of efficiency. Motorists here are so patient in contrast to the East Coast. No one gives eye contact, and pauses at four-way stops can last way too long out of politeness.
Those are just a few of the ways that locals, both transplants and native-born, say Seattle-area drivers differ from those elsewhere. Over several weeks, Traffic Lab has fielded emails and phone calls from motorists, cyclists and pedestrians who described a Pacific Northwest passivity seeping onto the roads.
“For the most part, I’ve found the Seattle drivers to be less aggressive than other city drivers,” said Jacqueline Thiebe, a bicycle commuter in Seattle.
“When someone honks at you in NYC, you don’t think twice about it, it’s like a form of communication. Not here,” is how Brandon Garcia, of Ballard, put it.
Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.
For this week’s column, we’re highlighting comments from people who say Seattle’s driving culture is distinct, after one Woodinville man who contacted Traffic Lab said motorists here are generally perceived by outsiders as inept.
“Drivers in Seattle, or Washington state as a whole, are generally viewed by residents of other states as poor drivers,” said Donn Terry, 68, who said the complaints are a result of overly cautious driving that can exacerbate traffic congestion. “Could we make more efficient use of roads by teaching better driver skills?”
Seattle’s bad driving has been called out by the insurance company Allstate in its annual America’s Best Drivers Report, which has consistently ranked the city poorly in recent years.
Seattle was ranked 183 among the nation’s 200 largest cities for frequency of collisions last year. Bellevue, ranked at 175, wasn’t a whole lot better.
But an improvement in Washington’s driver-training standards, like Terry suggests, wouldn’t necessary shift motorist behavior as a whole. Seattle is one of the country’s most geographically diverse cities, and so many residents likely learned to drive elsewhere in the U.S. or world before moving here.
“I grew up on the East Coast,” Tim Godfrey, of North Beach, said. “The driving there was significantly more aggressive than here, and in particular, if you were going slow or even the speed limit in the left lane, people were on your bumper, flashing lights, honking if you still didn’t move.”
People like Godfrey shared their thoughts on drivers’ tendencies in response to Traffic Lab’s recent requests for stories from commuters about road rage and from bicyclists and pedestrians about roadway pet peeves.
“Drivers sometimes keep too much distance between their cars and the ones in front of them at red lights, which reduces the number of cars that can make it through the next light cycle,” Terry said, giving one example of what he considers questionable driving skills. “Also, some cars don’t move quickly when lights turn green.”
State law doesn’t stipulate a specific distance cars should keep when stopped at a traffic light. Casey Schaufler, who manages driver-training school programs at the state Department of Licensing, said students are taught to keep a “prudent distance.”
Washington law, like in most states, requires drivers younger than 18 to participate in some sort of driver education to get a license, according to a 2012 state-by-state breakdown provided by the Department of Licensing. Teens here must pass a course that includes classroom instruction and six hours of behind-the-wheel training.
In terms of local drivers’ tendencies, a few respondents complained about people being overly polite behind the wheel, specifically at four-way stops. Some drivers wait too long and don’t exercise their right of way, they said.
Capitol Hill’s Tom Hunden, 38, a frequent Los Angeles traveler, said the Pacific Northwest driving style is “frustratingly slow” and “very passive” compared with L.A.
One woman said this slower pace isn’t confined only to people behind the wheel.
“As a Midwestern transplant of 20 years, clearly I love Seattle,” Cari Snow said. “My beef is trying to get anywhere downtown on foot with any sense of urgency,” since so many people “wander along oblivious” because they’re distracted by their phones.
Still, among the urgency-challenged are drivers showing more than a little road rage.
Dozens of readers shared nerve-wracking stories as victims of aggressive driving, recounting cases of clashing with other drivers and cyclists, and witnessing an occasional angry hand signal.
“It always warms my New York heart to see the one-finger salute,” Ballard’s Garcia said.
Got a question?
Missed last week’s Q&A? We answered a question about using ORCA cards to transfer between bus, light rail and streetcar trips, and explained the process by which people can report questionable conduct by Metro bus drivers.
If you have a question or idea for Traffic Lab, send it to email@example.com. We may feature it in an upcoming column.