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Why Washington is the national capital of crashes

August 29, 2012|By Dan Turner
  • In Washington, the average motorist is involved in a collision every 4.7 years.
In Washington, the average motorist is involved in a collision every 4.7… (Scott Keeler / Associated…)

What makes our nation's capital, where filibusters are exceeded by fender-benders, the District of Collisions? Is there something about government work that attracts bad drivers?

According to a report from Allstate Insurance, Washington stands at the bottom of a list of 200 safe-driving cities, which is another way of saying it's the least-safe city examined by the insurer. And the explanations for this phenomenon offered to Times staff writer Richard Simon by AAA official John B. Townsend II do not add up. First off, Townsend explains, Washington has the worst traffic congestion in the country, and all those traffic jams "can trigger stress and frustration behind the wheel, and drivers tend to speed and become more prone to road rage."

Now wait just a minute. Los Angeles seldom gets top ranking on national measures of just about anything, but any Angeleno knows that when it comes to traffic, we're No. 1.

Actually, it turns out that we're No. 2 or 3, but Washington isn't a slam-dunk as jam-central either. In May, traffic researcher Inrix listed Honolulu as the nation's most congested city, with L.A. coming in second; according to that scorecard, Washington is merely the sixth nastiest place for American commuters. But District of Columbians point with pride to a 2011 study by the Texas Transportation Institute that put Washington on top of the traffic heap, ranking Chicago second and Los Angeles third. How about if we agree to this: Washington and L.A. both have very nasty traffic, but we're not sure which city is worse. Nonetheless, according to Allstate, the average motorist in Washington is involved in a crash every 4.7 years, compared to every 6.7 years for the average Angeleno. So heavy traffic doesn't really make the cut as the explanation.

Fortunately, Townsend offers others. The District gets a lot of visitors, who are unfamiliar with the roads. That's not very convincing either, as a check with the U.S. Department of Commerce -- which is, ironically, based in Washington -- reveals. A report by the department's Office of Travel and Tourism Industries ranks Los Angeles as the second most-visited city by overseas tourists; the District of Columbia comes in seventh. What else have you got?

Washington is a polyglot city full of foreign embassies, Townsend says, and a lot of those people learned to drive in their home countries so they aren't familiar with American rules. No one knows how many unlicensed drivers, many of whom are immigrants, there are in Los Angeles, but a AAA study found that 20% of fatal accidents in California involved at least one unlicensed driver. This problem is not unique to Washington. Finally, Townsend says Washington's unusual road design, such as its traffic circles, can be confusing. That one I'll buy.

And yet, I suspect the difference really comes down to a matter of temperament. There is a personality type that, confronted with a roadblock, becomes desperate for an easy solution, considers his own needs before the safety of others, refuses to rationally negotiate the problem and instead behaves erratically and dangerously. Did I mention that every single member of Congress lives at least part of the year in the Washington area?

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