Seattle Police officers Lyndell Jones and Jeff Rodgers carry out a unique mission: They're the only cops in the state who can bust drivers...
Seattle Police officers Lyndell Jones and Jeff Rodgers carry out a unique mission: They’re the only cops in the state who can bust drivers for simply cutting in line.
The pair stand near a freeway ramp from the West Seattle Bridge corridor to northbound Interstate 5, where commuters in the one-mile queue resent the minority who nose in front just before the ramp.
Whenever the crackdown is on, people honk, wave, give thumbs up and sometimes stop to tattle on the cheaters.
“They love us here,” says Rodgers. “Not many people love a traffic officer. We get public reinforcement, and we come back.”
Most drivers inch down the left lane toward the ramp, watching the moss grow on the elevated Spokane Street roadway. But others cruise in the open right lane — headed toward Beacon Hill — then troll for a spot in the left lane.
Though it’s the only place so-called “lane jumping” is forbidden, police and transportation officials across the region have noticed several spots where aggressive drivers try to slip past a line of traffic.
A year ago, public complaints drove the Washington state Department of Transportation to add a solid white stripe between lanes to forbid lane changes, and post a warning sign at Spokane Street.
Seattle officers say they’ve issued between 500 and 1,000 tickets there for disobeying road signs, a $101 infraction. Capt. Jim Pryor, of the department’s Southwest Precinct, said he considers the enforcement a preventive measure against road rage.
Two national experts said they’re aware of no other location in the U.S. where police issue citations for lane jumping.
One or two mornings a week, Jones and Rodgers dismount their motorcycles and stand at the onramp entrance, camouflaged by the yellow-and-black crash barrier. They wave violators into a clearing and write the tickets.
“It’s kind of like hunting ducks,” says Rodgers.
Diamond driftersBellevue police spokesman Michael Chiu, raised in North Seattle, notes that civility has declined since the 1960s, when cars circulated in free-flowing traffic at 70 mph, with few slowdowns to aggravate drivers. He calls the lane-jumping moves “damn rude.”
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Drivers are trying several ploys to shorten their commutes in the Seattle-Everett area. They include:
• Cone limbo: Approaching a construction zone, aggressive drivers bypass the queue by maneuvering within inches of the orange lane-closure cones, waiting until there’s no space left before cutting back in line.
• Ambulance chasing: After an aid car goes by, someone will quickly move in behind it, while other drivers are still pulled off to the side of the road.
• Diamond-lane loitering: While merging into westbound Highway 520 before the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, some drivers linger in the high-occupancy lane, then cross into the packed general lanes right before the road tapers from three lanes to two on the bridge.
• Island hopping: Impatient Snohomish County drivers get off elevated Highway 2 approaching Everett, drive on the surface roadways of Ebey Island, then re-enter the highway less than a mile ahead.
• Decoy signals: At Eastgate in Bellevue, some westbound commuters coast past the downhill Interstate 90 queue approaching I-405. They flick on the right-turn signal to create the illusion of politeness but wait until the freeway junction before veering into the right-hand exit lanes.
• Mall sneak: During the Christmas shopping season, Bellevue police set up traffic cones to stop some lane changes as drivers maneuver for advantage near Bellevue Square.
Taking cuts in the I-90/I-405 junction is illegal only if someone commits an “improper lane change” that forces others to slam on the brakes. It’s dangerous, said Chiu, because the lane jumper can drive away scot-free while cars in the line rear-end each other.
“If they really wanted to make the lane change, they would have done it a half-mile back, close to the end of the line,” he said.
Or perhaps not.
Bill Beatty, a self-described amateur traffic physicist commuting from Renton into Seattle, will slow down a full mile before the Seneca Street bottleneck of northbound I-5 — to let several cars merge in front. That avoids stop-and-go confrontations at Seneca, where a left lane disappears.
“I don’t think they’re cheaters. All of a sudden, the lane you’re going to merge into is full of cars,” he said. “You can’t go back to the end of the queue, like at a bank. Once you’ve missed it, you’re screwed; they won’t let you in.”
Many lane-jumping moves are difficult to prevent, and there are no plans to extend Seattle-style restrictions to other parts of the state. Instead, WSDOT hopes to remove the temptation, by adding or improving lanes in the most constricted areas.
“Learn to drive!”Newcomers often blame highway lines on unskilled local drivers. “The rest of the country understands how to merge,” said Tim Bierman, who drove in several cities before moving to Seattle. “Here, they just tighten up. Learn to drive! … If you honk your horn to get into a line, people flip you off.”
Or, they blame politicians for bad roads. Some lane jumpers claim they’re making the roadways more efficient by going around the line. That way, cars utilize two lanes instead of one.
That theory doesn’t fly, according to Chris Barrett, a Virginia Tech scientist who pioneered the use of advanced mathematics to model traffic movements.
Whenever a lane jumper forces others to hit the brakes, that causes a “deceleration wave” moving rearward, disrupting the entire flow, he explained.
“It might be OK for him, but it’s going to be worse for everyone else,” Barrett said.
Leon James, a University of Hawaii professor and specialist in traffic psychology, urges motorists to help each other merge.
“The fastest way of moving traffic is to have altruistic drivers,” he said. “If you have selfish or self-centered drivers, traffic doubles in time.”
He and Barrett were unaware of other places where police issue tickets for lane-jumping.
Generally, drivers in Washington are more polite and law-abiding than in most regions, said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington.
His data shows that HOV-lane violations are 1 to 4 percent on most Seattle-area freeways, topping out at 11 percent near the Evergreen Point bridge.
“Many people seem to think that if they cheat in the last quarter-mile, that’s OK,” he said.
Gratitude or attitudeSeattle officer Rodgers calls the lane-jumping patrol his most dangerous ticket-writing duty. He’s standing between the freeway onramp on one side and two through lanes to Beacon Hill on the other side. A Jeep speeds by, 50 mph in a 35 mph zone. Rodgers steps into the roadway, waves his leather citation book and yells at the driver to slow down.
Jones, a former cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons, directs an older Buick to stop at the crash barrier.
“I’m trying to make it to my doctor appointment,” the young woman behind the wheel tells a reporter. “He can take his … ass over and get someone else.”
But grateful UPS delivery drivers, based near the interchange, give thumbs up. Teens wave through a sunroof.
Some drivers try to outwit the police. If the cops have their heads down writing citations, they’ll cut ahead of a semi-truck in the line. Or they go down the open right lane, and if the police are present, continue up to Beacon Hill.
Officer Jones said that if violators have a clean record and “don’t give attitude,” he tells them how to get the citation dropped from their driving records after six months.
Linh Truong, her white Lexus pulled over at the crash guard, thought it was OK to take cuts, because “the lady just let me in.”
Hayley Martin of Bellevue, who had just dropped off a child in West Seattle, explains that she recently moved back to the area and was used to taking cuts before.
“I just kind of spaced it,” she said. “There are a bazillion places you merge like that, and this is the only place they’re making a big deal out of it.”
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.