A drive for civility

From the day he took office, the man in charge of fixing Puget Sound’s traffic conundrum has been hit by complaints from frustrated drivers.

While state Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald’s job is to fix the region’s overcrowded roads, it’s the "What are you going to do about bad drivers?" question that he’s most often been hammered with.

People don’t get out of the fast lane when traffic builds up behind them. Trucks don’t drive in the slow lane as they should, cluttering the through lanes.

Vehicles merge onto the road without looking, and people don’t get out of the way for merging traffic.

All these bad driving habits, from road rage to tailgating to unsafe lane changes, are causing traffic backups and accidents.

That’s what MacDonald has been hearing for more than two years .

"I didn’t really take it seriously the first few times people came to me with their traffic-solving ideas about bad drivers," MacDonald said. But the passion and persistence of the ideas seemed to resonate.

"So I thought, what the heck, let’s see what we can do," he said. "If we can make traffic move a little better by encouraging folks to remember and use the rules of the road, it may be worth it."

MacDonald is asking the state Legislature for $1 million to pay for an advertising campaign to improve driver courtesy and remind drivers of the rules of the road.

If the Legislature approves the proposal, the program could start next summer. Meanwhile, the Transportation Department hopes to start with a smaller, $200,000 education program this fall.

"What we want to do is change driver behavior in a way that reduces accidents," said Linda Mullen, Transportation Department communications director. "We want to improve traffic safety by improving traffic flow."

The push to work on behavior stems from feedback the department has received from recent surveys and focus groups, including a focus group that met in Everett.

"Universally, everyone thought road rage and aggressive driving is a problem," Mullen said.

The Herald’s ongoing Fix Your Commute project also has shown that drivers are fed up with bad road habits, telling us that they would like to see slow drivers get out of the far left lane so traffic doesn’t back up.

Mullen called Fix Your Commute — a partnership between The Herald, KIRO 7 Eyewitness News and The News Tribune of Tacoma — another focus group that confirms behavior on the road has emerged as a major problem.

Ongoing right now at www.heraldnet.com/fyc, Fix Your Commute is a computer simulation that allows readers to decide how to fix the region’s transportation problems — and also decide how to raise the money to pay for the solutions. When finished, the findings will be sent to the Transportation Department.

So what hot-button issues did those lucky enough to participate in the department’s lets-get-our-pet-peeves-off-our-chests focus groups raise?

Too many drivers don’t know how to merge, they don’t know how to get out of the way of faster traffic, and they don’t know how to change lanes, Mullen said.

Men and women had similar views on many but not all issues.

"Women more so than men thought tailgaters are the problem," Mullen said. "Men overwhelming were the ones who wanted the slow drivers to get out of the fast lane."

Getting other drivers out of the passing lane certainly resonates with Dave Dennison, a Northgate resident who drives all over the Puget Sound region. He was a participant in the Fix Your Commute project.

"If one person just moved over, someone else could drive four or five miles per hour faster, and the flow of traffic would improve," said Dennison, who says he doesn’t like to be boxed in by traffic on the freeway.

But too often, he gets penned in behind someone going exactly the speed limit — or a teensy bit below it — and his frustration begins to build.

"If they just move over, if they just let the car go, then the stress would go away," he said. "You’ll never see me again."

Washington State Patrol Lt. Julie Johnson also wants that driver to move out of Dennison’s way, even if Dennison is speeding.

"When you’re in the left lane and you see that there are people trying to get by, move to the right and let them get past," Johnson said.

Tempers fly when drivers try to enforce speed-limit laws on other drivers by purposely blocking their way.

"What frustrates drivers the most is when they can see there’s no one in front of the car that’s holding them back," she said.

Johnson said it’s much more dangerous to have that frustrated driver start tailgating and weaving in and out of traffic than it is to get out of their way and let them go speeding down the road.

All drivers should obey the speed limit, Johnson said, but that doesn’t make it OK to try to impose your will on other drivers by blocking them in.

"We’ll catch those speeders," she said.

Troopers can ticket drivers who hold up traffic when they could safely move out of the way to let the other cars by.

Still, tickets for impeding traffic aren’t given out at near the pace of tickets for speeding, DUI, aggressive driving and not wearing seat belts. Enforcing those four — known as the four big killers — is a State Patrol focus.

Through Oct. 1, troopers made 87 stops this year for impeding traffic and gave out five tickets in a district that stretches from the Snohomish-King County line to the Canadian border and from the Cascades to Puget Sound. In 2002, 129 stops were made, with five citations handed out.

In contrast, troopers stopped 24,266 drivers in the same district for speeding through Oct. 1, with slightly more than half getting tickets. In 2002, 25,580 people were stopped, again with slightly more than half getting tickets.

"I can’t see (impeding traffic) as one of our big killers," said trooper Lance Ramsay, who said I-5 in Snohomish County is normally so jammed with cars that many drivers are forced to travel in the passing lane. "To have that lane completely open all the time would be completely ridiculous," he said.

But if troopers would start nailing drivers for not moving out of the way in greater numbers, drivers would adjust their road habits, said Robert Edwards, a bus driver for King County Metro and another Fix Your Commute participant.

"All we hear about in the news is road rage," Edwards said. "Road rage is a reaction from something else that’s happening on the road. It’s like somebody pushes you and you want to push back."

Instead of chasing after the people who get mad and drive dangerously on the road, Edwards said troopers should force drivers to be more considerate of other drivers, eliminating much of the tension that leads to road rage.

"If the State Patrol would start going after the cause of the problem rather than the result of the problem, we might get somewhere," he said, adding that’s the way some other states do it. "I used to drive long haul through California, and the one thing I noticed was how people move to the right."

Mullen said part of the new education campaign the Transportation Department wants to embark on would involve enforcement, adding that the State Patrol has been involved in developing the campaign.

The advertising campaign would try to reach drivers through television and radio spots, newspaper ads and billboards.

Edmonds-based road rage expert Richard Kirby said the solution to the aggressive driving problem is for all drivers to make individual decisions to ease tension on the road, not increase it.

"You see people carving each other up on the road," he said. "If you drive legally at the speed limit, people crowd you and harass you. "

But instead of acting in anger, Kirby recommends doing what you can to get out of the way so your journey doesn’t become stressful.

Kirby, a former psychology lecturer at the University of Washington, is a minister and an author. He believes that the problems on Washington’s roads stem from passive-aggressive drivers who don’t move out of the way because they are driving the speed limit and they want to make sure the driver behind them also follows the rules.

No matter how aggressive the driver behind gets, he suggests moving out of the way. If they’re driving recklessly, he recommends calling 911 and then forgetting about it.

"The key idea here is the good journey," said Kirby, who adds that every drive can be a wonderful experience if you put your mind to it.

For him, having a pleasant trip starts before he even starts his car.

"Put your hand on the ignition key and just say the magic words, ‘Now begins a journey of love."

It’s that simple affirmation and others like it that can change the driving experience, he said, from "a race to a grace."

Reporter Lukas Velush: 425-339-3449 or lvelush@heraldnet.com.

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