driving behavior

I don’t know how much you can tell about a city’s drivers by walking around. Probably not much. I remember walking in San Francisco in 2000 and being very conscious of the fact that I had seen reports on the local news saying that the city had a poor pedestrian safety record. But of course I was a pedestrian.

Last year I spent a few months in Washington, D.C. and as a pedestrian I felt fine. But the driving behavior I saw at a few places – including two intersections in particular near the Takoma Metro station that I walked by every day on my way to and from the place I was staying – looked pretty dangerous. People would race down two lane streets to try to be the first to reach the spot where the street collapsed into a single lane; people would pass on one-lane streets by pretending to wait to turn right and then slamming down on the gas to go forward as soon as the light changed; people would cut off oncoming traffic to turn left when lights changed; and in general people did not leave much time to make turns. Had these been a few isolated incidents here and there, I wouldn’t have thought much about it, but I regularly found myself thinking “that was insane!” after witnessing something crazy from the sidewalk. But I never saw an accident.

Recently I saw a story in the Examiner (via somewhere I don’t remember): “D.C. drivers most accident-prone in nation, insurance study finds”:

D.C. drivers are more likely to be in auto accidents than drivers in any other city in the country, and Alexandria and Arlington drivers follow closely behind, according to a new study.

D.C. drivers average one accident every 5.4 years, making them almost three times more collision-prone that drivers in Sioux Falls, S.D., which ranked as the safest driving city in the 2008 Allstate America’s Best Drivers report.

The number means D.C. drivers are 84 percent more likely to be in an accident than the average driver nationally and places the city as the most dangerous for drivers among the 193 studied.

The rankings can be found here (under 2008 data). Note that San Francisco also does poorly in the rankings at 185, but there’s a huge gap between D.C. and almost all of the other listed cities in terms of “Relative Collision Likelihood” (compared to the national average): D.C. comes in at nearly 84% more likely and S.F. at just over 44% more likely. I haven’t looked into the methodology, but the Examiner says that the numbers are based on claims filed in 2006 – so that’s before I went to D.C.

That Examiner article also provides some information about congestion:

The Washington area ranks as the second-most-congested in the country, tying with Atlanta and San Francisco and trailing only Los Angeles.

The interesting thing there is that the Washington area, Atlanta, and San Francisco (assuming this means the San Francisco area) are the three regions that built similar heavy-rail transit lines after the second world war. I suppose a transit skeptic would take this as evidence that the rail lines haven’t done their job, but the fact that Los Angeles, which did not build any lines back then ranks lower, suggests that the costs of not building transit could have been higher. It also suggests that the transit projects facilitated growth (and at least in the case of BART, that was one of the goals).


  1. One of BART’s goals was to contain sprawl. There was a belief that villages would spring up close to the stations. Of course, this required land use laws that didn’t exist and were never planned for until recently. BART’s cheerleaders in the 1960s seemed to think that this would just happen naturally. (Not terribly odd, shopping mall developers in the post war years thought they were controlling sprawl as well — in comparison to the strip malls along highways in the 1930s and 1940s, I suppose they were).

    Many years ago there was an article about how the best drivers in the country were in the Pacific NW followed by the West and then gradually getting worse until reaching the Southeastern United States — DC to Atlanta being the worst. I always contributed this at some point to Southeasterners reluctance to regulate social behavior as it relates to the automobile.

  2. One of BART’s goals was to contain sprawl.

    True; I probably should have tried to distinguish between sprawl and growth. From what I’ve read of early BART planning, proponents wanted rapid transit to help the area grow by lessening traffic congestion, which they saw as potentially limiting the amount of people who could move in. They probably underestimated future people’s willingness to take a long commute/need for jobs regardless of commute.

    A big problem was that rapid transit proponents didn’t always agree on how they wanted that growth distributed. There was a lot of suspicion outside of SF that the goal of BART was to keep the region centralized on SF – BART came with a lot of office growth, if not population growth, in SF, but didn’t look like it would serve so-called reverse commuters or people making suburb to suburb trips very well. This is partly why San Mateo County dropped out of the original plan. So there was an anti-sprawl aspect to BART planning, but it didn’t rule out other kinds of growth. And it was ok with residential growth around outlying stations; the construction of large parking lots combined with the lack of appropriate land-use laws (as you point out) made it almost impossible for this growth to be anything but car-centered.

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