Patience is a virtue — and in this case, can save you a $124 traffic ticket.

Share story

You’re parked. It’s been an hour. The waiting game at Washington State Ferries terminals is one boat commuters know all too well.

Come the weekend, and your patience is tested even more. Summer is the “Super Bowl” for ferries, with ridership double that of any other time of year, the agency says. Boarding times can reach as high as three hours.

That is, for rule-abiding ferrygoers.

Others try shortening their wait time by jumping ahead in line.

“What happens to drivers who get caught cutting lines at ferry stations?” Jan Witsoe, of Whidbey Island, wrote to Traffic Lab. “My personal observation is the number of line-cutters has increased since a reporting system was instigated and there are no longer visible consequences.”

First, your eyes aren’t fooling you.

Line-cutting in general has become more of an issue in recent years.

“It enrages me so much, I wish more could be done,” someone posted on Reddit. “It makes cars idle and block driveways for fear of being cut.”

Drivers at Mukilteo, Clinton and Edmonds ferry terminals typically notice the most cheaters, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). Some stations have few reports or none at all.

At the Kingston station, the problem led officials to launch a voucher system so that drivers prove they followed the correct route before boarding, Washington State Patrol Lt. Dwayne Korthuis-Smith said. Staff hand out the slips miles from the terminal.

But the launch of a reporting system did not cause line-cutting. Instead, the opposite is true.

WSDOT added the violation as a reportable offense to its HERO Program in 2010 because of its prevalence. The program allows motorists to report fellow drivers (and their license-plate numbers) by filling out an online form or calling 1-877-764-HERO. Before, it pertained only to people cheating on HOV- and HOT-lane laws.

Violators, however, won’t get tickets when they’re reported that way.

Transportation staff first weed out the false or malicious claims and then mail brochures to alleged cheaters in substantial ones, WSDOT spokesman Marqise Allen said. They log the reports in a database for tracking.

Reported a second time, line-cutters will get a letter from the Washington State Patrol, WSDOT says.

“I know for some folks, it doesn’t give the instant gratification,” Allen said. “In the long run, it really does matter.”

That’s because, he said, most people don’t repeat the offense once they get warning materials in the mail. Also, the reports help WSDOT track the problem.

Beyond that citizen-reporting system, troopers keep an eye out for the traffic violation at terminals, too.

They reprimand line-cutters on a case-by-case basis, in part, depending on their reasoning for trying to get ahead, Korthuis-Smith said.

“Their patience is limited; they’ve worked a 10-hour day; they’re anxious to get home,” he said. “In other cases, that’s not the case — it’s a confused citizen.”

Typically, troopers pull cheaters aside and make them wait to board, Korthuis-Smith said. Or, troopers may send them to the back of the line. The delays can be as long as four ferry trips, depending on how many cars the cheater tried skipping.

For other cases, troopers slap drivers with $124 tickets, citing them under the state law that requires motorists to obey traffic-control devices. Korthuis-Smith estimated that happens less than 10 percent of the time.

Managing traffic-flow issues at ferry terminals, he said, is a “cursory mission” to troopers’ top priority of monitoring for terrorist threats and scanning cars with bomb-sniffing dogs.

WSDOT received 1,624 line-cutting reports via the HERO Program last year and 2,101 in 2015, the agency reported.

And according to Korthuis-Smith, the line-cutting trend is less about reporting and enforcement and more about broad shifts in driving culture as a whole.

For instance, more drivers than ever are relying on GPS systems to get around, and those maps can lead people to roads that bypass ferry lines, he said.

“If there is someone from California or Florida and they have no idea where to go, and they’re using GPS, that could lead them the wrong way,” he said. Other drivers may interpret that type of mistake as malicious when, really, it was unintentional.

Or, he said, people miss signs for where to get in line because they’re too distracted with phones, he said. (A friendly reminder: Washington recently banned the use of handheld devices and watching video while driving.)

Also, considering the region’s population boom, ferry ridership is on the rise — which raises the stakes of the line-cutting problem.

More than 24 million people boarded last year, breaking a 12-year annual record, Ferries reported.

“We’re trying to push a lot more people through this small point,” Korthuis-Smith said. “Alert us, be patient … and use that (HERO) number.”

Got a question for Traffic Lab?

Last week, we spotlighted the state’s vehicle-emission test, and how officials are preparing to get rid of it. The week before that, we described why electronic traffic signs above arterials sometimes show wrong information.

If you have a question or idea for us, send it to trafficlab@seattletimes.com. We may feature it in an upcoming column.