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Left Coast/Right Coast - Traffic and Seattle Drivers

Seattle drivers are among the most “timid” I’ve experienced. Whenever you encounter any possible reason (including potato famine) for slowing down, Seattleites will do so.
Mike Gold is a retired entrepreneur providing his views on the Northwest. Photo credit: Katie Stearns.

Mike Gold writes for the News of Mill Creek on a regular basis. He is a retired entrepreneur and describes himself as a, “relatively recent transplant to the West Coast. I have lived (born and raised) in the Northeastern U.S. So these observations are based upon ‘living the dream’ in the Pacific Northwest.”

As I learned to drive in New York City – then perfected my techniques in Boston, Massachusetts, I can safely say I’ve driven in two of the worst US cities for bad drivers. However, after six years here, I’m not certain that greater Seattle is not in contention for first place. Here is my reason:

Seattle drivers are among the most “timid” I’ve experienced. Whenever you encounter any possible reason (including potato famine) for slowing down, Seattleites will do so. There are two highway sections, which illustrate my point.

  • Coming north on I-5 – near the Transit Center (Mountlake Terrace) there is a long gradual hill. I don’t care what time of day I come through there, but the highway slows down – often to bumper to bumper until you crest the hill then traffic speeds back up to 60 mph. Why can’t people here just step a little harder on the gas and maintain highway speed?
  • Also, I-405 – heading south – as you clear Bothell and head up another long hill towards Kirkland – again no matter what time of day, traffic slows down often to bumper to bumper until you crest that hill.

What are drivers afraid of? In the northeast, long gradual hills are excuses to see how fast your car can accelerate up the hill. There is a “driver’s award” if you can get the car airborne on the crest of the hill (minimum speed required about 120 mph)!

Now in deference to local drivers – they are the “most polite” I’ve run across. When you come up on “lane closed ahead” and one of those signs asking you to merge (left or right), drivers here will take the first opportunity to merge as instructed. In either New York or Boston, these signs are a challenge.

The contest is to see who can merge over at the last possible chance. If you’re really good, you try and knock down the “merge” sign. In the same vein, if you “forget” to merge as soon as possible, drivers here will gladly let you merge in – even at the last moment. In New York and Boston, your attempt to “cut in front” of the long line of drivers who obeyed the merge sign way earlier on the road will be greeted by a. the finger, b. if warm weather with open windows a verbal assault that would do any sailor coming into port after 6 months at sea proud and c. Potential “bumper cars” – a well known northeaster sport in which you attempt to do everything including making physical contact with the “last minute merge” driver to keep them from cutting in line. In Boston in particular, it is considered a “badge of honor” to have a dented front fender on your car. This is an “intimidation” factor that warns the “cut in” driver he/she is messing with the wrong marine.

Forget about an accident. Not only will you spend an extra 20 minutes getting through an accident scene – but the police or emergency vehicles seem (to this observer) to be deliberately seeing how much time they can spend before opening up “normal” traffic. In New York and Boston, they call a tow truck and drag the car carcass (es) off to the right sometimes, it seems, before they’ve even attended to any injuries. Gotta keep people moving (nothing to see here, folks). And the rubber neckers are as bad on the opposite side of the highway as on the accident impacted side.

Tailgating: another reason, I suspect, people around here don’t tailgate (or don’t do it well) is that timidity. Why take the unnecessary chance of running into the car in front of you. Just slow down at every opportunity – again causing more slow downs and bumper to bumper traffic than in the northeast.

In both New York and Boston, tailgating is a true “game of chicken” sport. The idea is to get so close to the car in front of you – and the faster the highway speed the better, that not only can you read any bumper stickers on the back of the car in front of you, but you can see individual bug splatters on the license plate and discern what species of bug it is. The idea is to intimidate the “slowpoke” driver in front of you to “pull to the right” to let you get past. (Of course, as there is an infinite stream of cars in front of each car that does pull over – you gain milliseconds during a 45-minute drive). But there is nothing like the sheer terror you see on the face of the in-front drive in their rear-view mirror as you attempt to park your car in their trunk. The only cities with worse “game of chicken” drivers are all outside the U.S. Try Rome Italy, or Montreal Canada if you really want to shorten your life by several years in only a few months of driving.

Now it is clear that part of the driving problem in greater Seattle is there are not enough roads to support the amount of traffic we have. Well, what city is not like this? As I’ve aged (some say not well), I guess I am slightly more tolerant of the traffic conditions that one faces. There is little you can do about it. But on occasion, you would not want to hear what I’m screaming inside my car when “stuck” in any traffic jam.

Next time: The Motor Vehicle Office and other “public” facilities.

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