You’d think Western Washingtonians would be good at driving in the rain, given all the practice we get. So why does it seem like we’re so bad at it?
Nearly every time precipitation hits, whether its a drizzle or a deluge, there seem to be traffic catastrophes all over the place.
More collisions happen when roads are wet, the Washington State Patrol confirms. In particular, the first rain after it’s been dry for a while can bring all the leaked oils and fluids from cars to the surface, and it’s hard to get traction on a road that slick.
But if we’re being honest with ourselves, the answer might be simpler: We’re not that good at driving in the first place.
Slippery roads, big puddles, splashing rain — it all just takes away the slim margin of error that keeps every day from being a continuous crash course.
“We’re bad drivers in general, and in the rain, things get a lot worse quicker,” said Joe Giammona, chief executive officer of The Driver Training Group and chairman of Global Driving Solutions.
Every day, Giammona said, drivers tailgate, hit the brakes needlessly, change lanes without signaling, pull out in front of other cars and roll through stop signs. This gets more dangerous when fellow motorists can’t stop or react as quickly.
Bad behind-the-wheel behavior isn’t isolated to the Puget Sound region. Compared to the rest of the world, Americans are mediocre drivers at best, said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington.
In most other developed nations, such as Japan, New Zealand and Germany, the requirements for getting a driver’s license are far stricter than those in any of the United States, Hallenbeck said.
“There is no way the Germans would allow a driver on the road that has as little training as we get,” he said.
And yet, Giammona said, we all believe we’re excellent drivers — it’s those other bozos on the road who are the problem, we’re sure of it.
As a result, people in the U.S. don’t value driving skills, say Giammona and Mark Butcher, who are among a group of driving instructors trying to address what they believe are deficiencies in Washington state’s driver-education program.
By some measures, Washington has been found to be the hardest state in which to get a license. But after The Seattle Times published a story about that in June, Giammona, Butcher and five other driving instructors sent The Times a letter that said getting a license here actually ought to be harder.
“For years now, a common and bitter grievance among driving examiners performing behind-the-wheel skills exams is that the method of calculating the driver’s score is forcing examiners to pass a driver that they can see is unsafe,” they said. “This is because the method of scoring that Washington state is using for the skills exam has a serious flaw: Although the examiner is recording on the score sheet all errors a driver makes during the skills test, a driver can make multiple errors — many of them high-risk — that are not allowed to be deducted from their final score.”
For example, they said, drivers can neglect to look over their shoulders or not signal a lane change multiple times during the test without those repeat mistakes affecting their scores.
Spokespeople for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the Washington State Patrol declined to comment on the overall quality of Washingtonians’ driving.
However, Trooper Rick Johnson of the State Patrol said, “There is an appearance that people forget how to drive in the rain.”
He and WSDOT spokesperson Barbara LaBoe said weather-related crashes could be curtailed if drivers followed common-sense rules and driving laws:
- Slow down (even if you have four-wheel drive).
- Increase your following distance.
- Use your headlights.
- Check your tire tread, your windshield wipers and your defroster. Make sure your windshield-wiper fluid is filled before the rainy season begins in earnest.
- Leave early and give yourself plenty of travel time so you’re not rushing.
- Pull over and take a break if you’re frustrated or angry, as that’s when people are often tempted to make a bad decision.