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The Real Capital of Perilous Driving


WASHINGTON — A lot of Americans concluded long ago that the nation's political system is a stinking mess, but now the people who created it have taken their bad habits to the roads.

In a series of tragic accidents over the last year, mindlessly aggressive drivers have shown just how petty and ruthless this city of Type A personalities has become:

Dueling drivers caused a massive accident that killed three people on a scenic stretch of parkway overlooking the Potomac River. A speeding motorist plowed into a crowded city street.

The trend has become so alarming that the Clinton administration this month unveiled a $100,000 effort, called "Smooth Operator," to combat the bad habits of drivers in Washington.

"It's nuts," said Phillip R. Recht, an Angeleno transplanted to Washington when he was appointed deputy administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "There is a marked difference between Los Angeles and here."

To weary drivers in Southern California, it may seem a big surprise that another region could possibly have greater peril. In fact, the explosion of aggressive driving in Washington has left experts such as Recht (ironically pronounced "wreck") no less astonished. The safety administration has launched a study to try to understand what causes aggressive driving, which is also popping up in less virulent forms in other regions.

"Maybe it's our hurry-up society, higher speed limits or traffic congestion as road space remains static," Recht said.

Inside the marbled halls of the Capitol, senators and congressmen ride in elevators reserved for them alone, but on the way home they have to drive on the same streets as the riffraff.

"It's a spreading malignancy on our roads, this issue of aggressive driving," Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) fumed at a recent hearing.

A recent poll of Washington motorists by AAA Potomac found that for the first time, aggressive driving displaced drunk driving as the most feared problem on the road. In the first week of a crackdown on aggressive driving, police in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia issued a remarkable 12,000 tickets, Recht said.

Sgt. Ernie Garcia, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, said the CHP has seen no increase in aggressive driving around the Southland.

"I think drivers here are pretty courteous," Garcia said. "News people call me from back East and they want me to confirm that it is as bad out here as it is there. They get mad when I tell them we don't have a problem."

After dealing with Washington traffic for the nearly four years I have lived here, I think Garcia and Recht have it right. The conditions in D.C. are made worse by the terribly designed roads, the poor signs and the unpredictable weather. But something larger is wrong in Washington, showing up in hostile and selfish behavior on the road.

"People are so driven here that time means everything to them," said Tom Sullivan, AAA Potomac spokesman. "They are constantly on the go and driven to succeed."

* Vartabedian will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W. No. 1100, Washington, DC 20006 or e-mail to

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