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Are Seattle drivers really so terrible?

Traffic in downtown Seattle is shown on Monday, July 17, 2017, from Rizal Park.
KUOW photo/Megan Farmer
Traffic in downtown Seattle is shown on Monday, July 17, 2017, from Rizal Park.

If there’s one thing Seattleites want to know, it’s this: Why is everyone else such a terrible driver?

This question — or some variation of this question — is one of the most often submitted to KUOW.

“Why are Seattle drivers so bad?” asked one listener.

“I would like to know why Seattle has such bad drivers? 55 in the left lane? We need some education on the rules of the road,” said another.

Another question reads: “Why [do] people drive so slow in Seattle? Seattleites need to learn driving from LA, Toronto, Detroit drivers …”

The questions keep coming, and the picture that emerges isn’t flattering. According to our fellow Seattleites, we’re slow, timid, left-lane hogs who need to take a refresher course on drivers’ ed. To muddy the waters a bit, others want to know why drivers in this area are so aggressive.

It’s not hard to find headlines that back up those complaints — most notably citing an annual report from insurance company Allstate that year after year puts Seattle and Bellevue drivers as some of the most accident-prone in the nation. The most recent analysis shows that Seattle drivers insured by Allstate file an accident claim every 6.7 years, compared to Kansas City’s 14.9 years — the longest average for any major city.

And there’s plenty more anecdotal evidence of driving frustrations, such as this roundup from the Seattle Times.

So, is it true? Are we all horrible drivers?

Well … it’s complicated.

The Seattle area is one of the most congested places in the nation, and we’ve recently experienced a massive influx of new residents — about 236 people move here every day. That’s probably one reason why traffic accidents have increased about 20 percent over the last two years in Washington state. And with average commute times getting longer, it’s not surprising that people are frustrated.

Still, evidence of bad driving, such as the Allstate report, is a bit more nuanced than it seems on the surface. The insurance company does hold a large share of the national market, so the data is meaningful. But all it shows for certain is that Allstate customers in this area file frequent claims. It doesn’t make allowances for the severity of the accidents — or for unreported incidents.

“That survey aside, Seattle is one of the safest cities in the world,” Allison Schwartz, the external outreach director for the Seattle Department of Transportation, said in an email. “Right now, we’re seeing close to 13,000 crashes each year, resulting in an average of 20 people losing their lives and 150 people being seriously injured,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz reframed the question of bad driving this way:

“Someone who isn’t fully focused and paying attention when they’re behind the wheel – that’s a bad driver,” she said. “People need to understand and remember that when they are behind the wheel, they’re responsible for moving a multi-ton vehicle, often at fast speeds. The laws of physics are not on the side of what we call vulnerable travelers – people walking and biking – because they don’t have the protection someone in a car has.”

Seattle is a Vision Zero city, meaning officials are working to end traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030. As part of the effort, speed limits dropped all over the city last year.

But what about those awful highway drivers?

In July, a new distracted driving law on the books in Washington state, and it remains to be seen if it will continue a short-lived trend in the right direction when it comes to safe driving. Traffic-related deaths decreased 5 percent from 2015 to 2016, while the national average climbed 6 percent. But there were still 537 traffic fatalities in 2016, and that was a 15 percent increase since 2014.

As for the left-lane lingerers, the Washington State Patrol shares your concerns about that. The agency announced earlier this year that troopers would start cracking down on people who camp out in the left lane, which should be reserved for passing during light traffic. That kind of announcement paired with frustrated anecdotes does seem to indicate that locals have a lesson to learn about polite and efficient driving.

But despite local grumblings, that’s not just a problem in the Seattle area. It seems left-lane campers are causing trouble all around the country.

What about all the passive drivers? Are they making traffic worse?

Maybe. Maybe not.

William Beaty, a research engineer at the University of Washington, is a prominent advocate of mitigating congestion by changing the way we drive. He’s publicized a theory that seems counterintuitive — and perhaps a bit like irritating driving: Leave a large space (or traffic bubble)in front of your car while driving to help prevent traffic jams. That allows cars to merge without slowing anyone down, meaning traffic keeps moving at the same speed.

“Basically, leaving bubbles is what you’re supposed to do,” Beaty said. “Everyone thinks if we just push ahead we’d get there faster, but that’s what creates a plug. You don’t want to push ahead. You want to maintain wide spaces.”

Even so, Beaty says he finds himself feeling annoyed when he sees a driver doing the very thing he knows will help get him to his destination faster.

“I know intellectually that’s making us faster, but I still want to honk at the guy,” he said.

It’s worth noting that maintaining a wide space isn’t the same as driving slower than everyone else. The latter will slow down traffic and prompt other drivers to weave to get around you, which is dangerous. And Beaty noted that the bubble theory only applies to highway driving. On city streets controlled by traffic lights, drivers should push ahead so more cars can proceed before the light turns red.

So, does Beaty think we’re bad drivers in Seattle? Not really; he thinks Seattle drivers have improved overall. And he points out that all large cities complain about how they have the worst drivers.

Of course. Everyone knows the worst drivers are in Los Angeles, Boston, Miami, Dallas, Portland, Atlanta, San Francisco … the list goes on.

“It’s always worse wherever you are,” Beaty said.

What makes us drive the way we do?

Leon James, a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii, studies that question exactly. And he says we learn driving behavior by watching our parents, long before we’re old enough to be on the road ourselves.

James said we tend to adopt similar driving styles on roadways we travel often, and an unfamiliar driver behaving unexpectedly can really throw us for a loop.

“All well-traveled road segments develop a style that is conducive to the style of those who use that road every day to commute,” he said. “If some motorists drive slower or with hesitations, they break the expected style and evoke hostility.”

James said he hasn’t found much evidence to suggest that regional driving styles are as distinct as we might think. One survey indicates that people complain about other drivers for the same things just about everywhere.

“One thing struck me,” James said. “The differences, though significant statistically, were actually very small, usually less than 5 percent. My conclusion was that driving styles are surprisingly comparable across all regions.”

So are Seattleites bad drivers or not?

It depends on your definition of bad. One thing’s clear: There’s certainly evidence to suggest that there are a fair number of annoyed drivers on the roads.

And since distracted driving and fatal crashes are on the rise nationally, we could all strive to do better. If you’re looking to make the roads safer, Schwartz suggests you follow this advice:

●     Pay attention

●     Put your phone away

●     Slow down (follow the speed limit)

●     Follow the rules of the road

●     Look out for each other

And if someone tells you that Boston and Los Angeles have worse drivers than Seattle, just back away. That’s a fight no one’s going to win.

Submit questions about our region in the form below. Your question could be investigated in a future KUOW story.