According to a recent report by Allstate Insurance, which analyzed vehicle accident reports in America’s largest cities, Washington DC drivers are the worst in the nation. It seems that DC drivers are 112.1% more likely to get into an accident than the national average. This should obviously concern us DC motorists, and prudence would dictate that we avoid driving in DC as much as possible. If possible, we should only drive only in our safe, suburban enclaves, and hop on the Metro whenever we’re heading downtown. Not so fast, DC commuters! It also seems that drivers in Alexandria are ranked as the 7th worst (62.6% more likely to get into an accident), and those in Arlington are ranked 12th (53% more likely). Heading north to get out of the Beltway maelstrom? You’re not going to find respite in the Baltimore area: as fortune would have it, Baltimore drivers rank second worst in the nation, and are 87% more likely to be involved in collisions than the national average. It seems we can’t get a break, and that there’s something about being in and around our nation’s capitol that brings out our inner demolition derby enthusiasts.
Except that the conclusion drawn from these accident reports (that being more accident prone ‘makes’ DC drivers ‘worse’) is mildly misleading. The opposite is probably true, that the DC area probably has many of the most skilled and capable drivers out there. I’d bet that, as a whole, NASCAR drivers are some of the finest drivers in the world, yet they probably have more accidents (per capita) than any other group of drivers in the nation. In fact, I would guess that part of the appeal of going to a NASCAR event is the possibility of a violent, multi-car conflagration. Just like those who go to a Caps game hoping for an entertaining dust-up, the mere chance of seeing the spectacle of a fiery collision is linked to the thrill of NASCAR. But we’re not professional drivers, and we’re not driving in DC for the entertainment of others. So what can we say about the Allstate findings?
I think it may have something to do with the character of the drivers, and not their skill or ability. And when I say ‘character’, I don’t necessarily mean ‘bad character’. If you read the comments on the articles about our ignominious claim to fame, you’ll see lots of comments about drivers cutting one another off, playing on-ramp or merge chicken with their vehicles (“whoever loves their car more will concede the spot”), communicating their displeasures with their middle fingers, or trying their best to give their capital colleagues vehicular colonoscopies. And though I reside way up in Frederick (‘the sticks’), I’ve seen it in action on those occasions when I venture into the Beltway fray. It is not pleasant, it is not kind or forgiving…you drive in DC, you better have your chinstrap buckled.
My armchair psychologist’s take on it is this: often times, people in DC are, by their nature, competitive, ambitious and even aggressive. And many people come to DC because they simply are that type of person; they are not here by accident. Certain types of people are drawn to certain types of activities. And those activities are linked to certain geographical areas or career choices. Just as squeamish types don’t do well in the military, those who are faint-of-heart are probably not going to fare well in the churn of political warfare. And I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that those character types who throw sharp elbows all day to survive in the DC political arena probably are not going to be able to turn their ambitious nature on and off whenever they drive their cars. Amped-up people who exist in an acutely competitive environment are just not the sort to check their personality and disposition at the door when they drive. It stands to reason that people whose driving ambition is to get ahead will probably drive to get ahead of you.
I do think there’s some correlation between the nastiness you see on the internet and the ugliness you see on the road. While the internet affords people a certain anonymity, allowing them to spew their thoughts with impunity, I sense that when some people drive, they feel that same sense of anonymity, that their actions are not really going to come back to them. Other drivers on the road become mere impediments to their getting to where they want to be, and that they can do what they like without ever having to put a human face to those affected by their actions. It’s unfortunate, it’s treatable…but I fear it is inevitable. While I fully realize that there is a lot of DC that has nothing to do with political and military life, it is reasonable to hold that the spirit of the town is somewhat contagious, and that even mild mannered folks are forced to put on their game face when getting behind the wheel. It’s a vicious circle: aggressive driving breeds aggressive driving. Ill-tempered drivers begin to sully the temperament of fellow drivers, leading to a downward spiral of driving courtesy. All of this leads to the most vicious circle of all: the Beltway.
It would be easy to conclude this little soliloquy with Gandhi’s (supposed) advice: “Be the change you want to see in the world”, and advise DC drivers to be charitable charioteers. But I don’t see that happening. Despite the title of this blog, I really don’t think that DC drivers are misanthropes. I just think that powerful (or rather, ‘power seeking’), aggressive people will naturally gravitate to situations and places where their assertive natures can flourish, and that those dispositions manifest themselves on the road. While New York remains the financial capitol of the US, DC is the epicenter of real power. If you want to wield power, DC is the place to be. You just have to get here first…no small feat.