Copyright © 2000 Robert G. Ferrell

Road Rage

Warning: the following piece was written when the author was in rather a bad mood and not all feeling his customary sense of benevolence towards the Human Race. Readers, especially more mature readers and those on blood pressure medication within the Washington, DC metropolitan area, are cautioned that some of the following observations and opinions may have a hypertensive effect.

Washington, D.C. drivers do not observe speed limits. I don't mean they choose not to adhere to them, I mean they apparently either don't see the signs or don't know what they mean. In most places I have driven in my quarter-century of navigating the asphalt rivers there exists a spectrum of drivers, from hell-bent-for-leather teenagers who think they are immortal to very elderly people who know darn well they aren't and are convinced that God will grant them an extra month of life for every mile an hour they average below the speed limit. In between you find the majority of people, who speed a little bit, when they think no one is looking or cares. In the DC 'burbs, the rule seems to be drive as fast as you and your car can reasonably (and I employ that adverb only in the broadest possible sense) go, signs, pedestrians, other vehicles, and sometimes even architectural features notwithstanding. This rule applies to absolutely everyone I've seen so far, without a single exception. Everyone drives, on average, 15 mph above the posted speed limit, in some places much more. This includes teens and old people, as well. I have yet to see anyone driving the speed limit on Herndon Parkway. I tried the first few times I traversed it and was very nearly run over for my trouble. People here do not tolerate wanton law-abiding. They paid for these roads; therefore they will drive exactly as they please on them. If you don't see things that way, you are a public nuisance and must be neutralized, preferably by being crushed in an automobile-stationary object collision that does not unduly inconvenience traffic.

To avoid being accused of trying to solve the problem, the authorities here have adopted the tactic of timing their stop lights as long as possible. They have apparently conducted studies to see just how long drivers will wait at a light without moving before they start to climb out of their cars and kill each other. They then time the lights to last exactly 3.5 seconds less than this, which helps to explain why drivers go so fast between lights. I have sat at a suburban light that went a little over three full minutes between cycles. Granted, the period of green light lasts longer as well (it would have to, I suppose), but that long period of total inactivity really grinds on a Texas boy who is accustomed to short cycles of perhaps 25 or 30 seconds tops. At least we keep creeping toward the intersection that way.

Parking lots here are designed with ingress in mind. The exit, if remembered at all, is usually back behind the building in some totally unexpected place where no one would ever think of looking for it. Entrances are wide, well paved, and clearly marked "one way." Sometimes you'll pass by a shopping center at 3:00 in the morning whose parking lot is still almost full, occupied by tired motorists who haven't yet found their elusive way out. They just cruise around in little orbits, weaving gently from side to side and staring fixedly at the curb as though it might suddenly open up and let them through. Every now and then one of them will stumble across the exit and flee wildly down the street, in a frantic mixture of triumph and sheer panic that the precious opening will abruptly vanish before they can get through it. I think this, more than any other single factor, helps to explain the immense popularity of four wheel drive sport utility vehicles around here. If you can't find an exit, make your own.

Now back in Texas (and by that I mean in those areas of Texas still inhabited largely by Texans. This does not include Houston, Dallas, or Austin), we generally try to help folks out who need to get to some other part of the road than where they are now, to exit or speed up or just pull over and stretch a mite. We'll give them some space to get in a lane if they just let us know that's what they want to do. We know they'd do the same for us. Drive Friendly; that used to be the motto of the Texas Department of Highways and Public Transportation (before it got all uppity and started calling itself the "Texas Department of Transportation" and took most of the signs down. I've often wondered what exactly that signifies about current official Texas automotive philosophy). You try that in DC, where the unspoken motto is Drive Psychotically. At first it might seem that people are grateful when you drop back and open up a hole for someone, but that's only sheer glee at their good fortune for finding what they think is an idiot who isn't paying attention. Half a dozen cars will dart abruptly in the direction of the hole, narrowly avoiding a complex multi-vectored collision that would impress the physicists who look at the tracks left by subatomic particles in those little cloud chambers.

People who get paid to study that sort of thing say that DC drivers are the third worst in the nation, after New York City and Boston. I contend that this is only because half the bad drivers in DC have diplomatic license plates and can't be counted in the surveys of accidents and tickets issued for moving violations. In fact, "moving violation" is a pretty good description of the average DC motorist. If I seem unreasonably harsh, you probably haven't driven the beltway.

The signs here are particularly evil. The only thing worse than no signs at all, it has become apparent to me, is DC signs. Now don't misunderstand me, the signs are informative, and relatively accurate. The problem is that they convey information that has very little likelihood of mattering to the average out-of-town motorist. It's almost as though the people responsible for putting up signs had a meeting where they all agreed that this was the best strategy for wreaking vengeance for some imagined affront the rest of the world had inflicted upon them. "Let them taunt us," I hear them saying, "None of them will be able to get anywhere if they pass through DC, and they'll have to pass through DC because we'll see to it that the only North-South highway passes through DC." And then they all cackle evilly and rub their greasy little hands together.

Lo and behold, soon it came to pass that, for example, signs on the South and North side of DC where Interstate 95 splits into the inner and outer beltway that were slated to read something like "I95: West Loop" and "I95: East Loop" were changed at the last minute to "Silver Spring" and "Annapolis" (if you're heading North) or "Alexandria" and "McLean" (Southbound), thereby ensuring that anyone with the sheer impudence to be using DC's own private Interstate to go to some heathen destination like Boston or New York City (Northbound) or Raleigh (Southbound) would have little chance of success. All the signs on the various incarnations of I95, such as 295, 395, and 495, have this sort of specific local information. You wouldn't even realize that there was any place outside the DC metropolitan area to which to go. I've never seen a sign that referred to any locality further away than Baltimore or Richmond anywhere on the beltway.

If the deliberately confusing signs aren't wicked enough, the streets and highways themselves are designed to pick off the weak or inattentive quickly and neatly. Lots of highways I've dealt with have lanes that peel off to the right or left, appearing or disappearing with little or no warning; this is just one of the hazards of freeway driving. The roads in DC go one better, however: they have lanes that appear and disappear while in the center of the roadway. I can't explain how this happens, it just does. It has a sort of 'Moebius strip' quality to it that gives me a headache even when I don't get caught in the lane that suddenly becomes a toll road with no exits for 25 miles.

Adding insult to multiple injury is the fact that Virginia taxes you every year just for the privilege of owning a car. It doesn't matter whether or not you drive it. Now, one may in grasping-at-straws defense of this policy put forth that this is to encourage folks to use mass transit and thereby save the environment. Alas, this attempt at explanation falls flat on its pimply face because mass transit here is nonexistent, unless you happen to be going to certain parts of DC or from DC to New York City and back. Oh sure, there are some city buses, but at least in my area they only run to the nearest train station (whose hulking electric denizen only goes to DC), and even at that only for a couple of hours in the morning and evening. If you don't work in DC, or work at unusual hours, you just have to pay the stupid tax. And brother, it ain't cheap: 4% of the 'fair market value,' whatever that means. These garbonzos just elected a governor who is going to 'phase the tax out' over the next four years, but it doesn't change the fact that they've been placidly paying it all these years. My throbbing little cerebrum just sends the room spinning around and around every time I think of what we'd do to the boys in Austin if they ever tried to tax Texas trucks like that. I think we'd show them just why there are still a lot of live oaks scattered around Austin, in the not particularly proud but damned effective tradition of our ancestors.

Typically, the hapless lawmakers of the Old Dominion State manage to bumble with gusto even in repealing this most execrable excise. They declare no tax on cars under $1,000 in value immediately, and tax only on the amount the car's value exceeds $20,000 after 2002. Okay, what behavior will this encourage? It looks to me as though it will encourage people to drive the cheapest, most rickety vehicles they can find, and to suffer frequent body damage to lower the value of the more expensive ones. Naturally, these bargain autos will have, shall we say, less than ideal pollution control systems, not to mention poorer acceleration, maneuverability, and reliability. All this will no doubt vastly improve both the temperament and the air quality of all those fortunate enough to be blessed with Virginia residence.

Of course, any idiocies perpetrated by local or state authorities here can be partially forgiven because of their proximity to the Center of All (American) Things Idiotic, Capitol Hill. Some kind of overwhelmingly brain-rotting aura emanating from that chunk of 1st Street between Independence and Constitution Avenues is the only rational explanation for the utterly idiotic voting patterns of DC residents. The man who was mayor here for many years was caught on videotape smoking crack while in office, served time for it, and was immediately reelected. To push it over into stupidity of almost epic proportions, the man had, apparently, no aptitude whatsoever for public planning or running a large metropolitan government. He was a Civil Rights leader who got elected on his charisma. Okay, it wasn't the first time that had happened. But to be put back in office time and time again after proving utterly undeserving of the public trust leaves me with no sympathy for people who sniff and whine about Congress taking back the freedom of home rule they had so recently bestowed upon them. It's bad enough not to be able to govern yourself, but to be adjudged less capable of doing it than Congress is, to me, the ultimate degradation for a people who desperately need some kind of serious attitude adjustment.