With motorists regularly disregarding every traffic law on the books, the streets of downtown Seattle can feel a bit like the Wild West these days. Adding to that feeling, we now have angry civilians dispensing vigilante justice.
It started with one woman who got fed up watching drivers clog up a downtown bus-only lane. So she got into the street, waving cars back into the appropriate lane. A video of it went viral, at least locally, and it inspired more folks to do the same.
While the Seattle Police Department (SPD) frowns on this traffic vigilantism, it’s clear from the footage why people are taking to the street: You see a steady stream of drivers who don’t think twice about using the bus lane. And if you spend any time downtown, you know that bus-lane violations are just the tip of the iceberg. Drivers block intersections, ignore red lights and generally treat traffic laws as mere suggestions.
But it’s not hard to figure out why motorists feel so emboldened lately. They don’t think they’re going to get caught, and by and large, they’re right.
Last year, only 27,600 tickets were issued to Seattle motorists for traffic infractions, according to data from the Seattle Municipal Court. That’s down about 18% from 2017, when about 33,700 tickets were written. If you go back to 2015, when 48,800 drivers got nabbed, the number has dropped by 43%.
Ticketing for many of the most common moving violations has declined by 40% or more since 2015. These include inattention to driving and disobeying a traffic-control device (running a red light, for example). Tickets for exceeding the speed limit dropped by more than half.
For pedestrians, trying to cross the street in downtown Seattle can be like an obstacle course, weaving through cars that “block the box.” It’s also a major cause of gridlock. But as common as it is, the number of tickets written for this violation in 2018 was roughly 100. That number’s also gone down from previous years.
Some types of violations have increased. The number of tickets for using a cellphone while driving, for example, more than doubled from 2016.
The violation for driving in a bus-only lane is combined with carpool-lane violations. For this infraction, there were fewer than 900 tickets written last year, court records show. That’s down from 1,300 from the year before, a 33% decline.
It appears that the bulk of the tickets issued for this infraction were not given to drivers riding in the bus-only lane, but rather to those illegally using a carpool lane. The top two locations where motorists got nabbed are in downtown Seattle: Ninth Avenue at Pike Street, and Fifth Avenue between Columbia and Cherry Streets. In both of these locations, there are carpool lanes coming of off I-5. But another hot spot for this infraction is the West Seattle Bridge, which does have bus-only lanes.
Seattle officials have said there’s nowhere for officers to pull over cars that use the bus-only lane, so enforcing the law would just slow traffic down even more. A bill to allow Seattle to use the cameras to enforce crosswalks and bus lanes failed to pass this year’s legislative session.
A spokesperson for the SPD, Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, said in an email that officers in the traffic units have taken on more responsibilities recently. For example, traffic officers are deployed for special events — parades, demonstrations, sports games, large concerts — which have pulled them away from regular duties. Also, for the last several years, officers have been tasked with collision investigations, which take a lot of time.
“Because Traffic Units have taken on roles at events and in handling collisions to ensure patrol units are available,” Spangethal-Lee said, “there has been an overall reduction in hours spent conducting traffic enforcement.”
These are pretty much the same explanation offered by the SPD when I interviewed them for a column I wrote in 2017 about the downward trend in traffic tickets. But since then, the number of citations has dwindled even more. SPD did not offer any further explanation for the sharp drop last year.
When I spoke with representatives at the SPD in 2017, one point they made was that bad driving was not among the top law-enforcement concerns for most city residents, according to a large survey conducted by Seattle University’s Department of Criminal Justice in 2016. The survey showed just 10 city neighborhoods where bad driving ranked among the top five issues.
But the recent examples of traffic vigilantism may point to a change in attitude, at least among people who live or work in the most congested areas of the city. Bad driving is not just rude — it’s making it harder for everyone to get where they need to go, and it endangers pedestrians and cyclists. In short, bad driving has become a quality-of-life issue in downtown Seattle.
So now SPD is responding, and we may have to thank the “bus-lane woman” for this bit of good news: According to Spangethal-Lee, starting this month, the SPD will work with the Seattle Department of Transportation to prioritize enforcement in downtown bus lanes during peak travel times.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated the percent decrease in the number of tickets issued by the Seattle Police. The correct decline is 43% since 2015, and 18% since 2017.