See end of this post for an update
It was three decades ago, but I still remember the story in the Houston Chronicle. It ran when I moved from New Jersey to Houston in 1980 to take a new job. A local driver shot dead another driver who had passed him in a funny way on a freeway. Just pulled out a gun and bang! The story was about the criminal trial. The jury convicted the gunman, all right–but not of first-degree murder. Second degree! Apparently, Texas law recognized in some small way that you pass someone funny at your peril. Coming from a state with strict gun laws where motorists routinely gave one another the finger while making crude comments (maybe because of those strict gun laws), the story made quite an impression on me. Ever since, I have been a model of decorum behind the wheel.
As someone New To Seattle, it turns out I have a lot of company here. Seattle drivers as a whole are the most polite and considerate I have ever encountered in the U.S. I am struck by this almost every time I am out and about. Seattle drivers are not aggressive to one another, they often stop for pedestrians even if it’s not a marked crosswalk, they generally respect bicyclists (this definitely was not true in Houston or suburban Los Angeles, two places that I’ve lived and biked in) and they smile a lot. Really. It’s certainly a far cry from Albuquerque, where during 12 years of residence I was the victim of three different hit-and-run accidents.
Of course, all this kumbaya in Seattle leads to some ridiculous situations, especially at four-way stop intersections in neighborhoods. Here’s a scenario I have seen a number of times: Driver 1 waves for Driver 2 to proceed. Driver 2 waves back for Driver 1 to proceed. Driver 1 waves again. So does Driver 2. Nobody moves. Finally, this perverse game of chicken ends, with one driver lurching forward and the other basking in an enhanced sense of virtue. Meanwhile, their idling vehicles are fouling the environment.
Now, with such civility and good faith, one would think that Seattle is one of the country’s safest cities when it comes to driving.
One would be wrong. Very wrong.
Every year, Allstate Insurance mines its vast database of accident claims to rank the U.S.’s 200 largest cities by how good its drivers are. No. 1 means the best, and No. 200, well, the worst. Seattle’s rank in Allstate’s latest list?
No. 128. Barely out of the bottom third.
According to Allstate, you’re 16% more likely to be in a traffic accident in Seattle than the national average. The typical driver here is in an accident every 8.6 years, compared with 14.5 years for drivers in No. 1 Fort Collins, Colo. and 5.1 years for drivers in dead-last Washington, D.C.
Maybe hold off the next time you want to make fun of Spokane. The drivers in Washington State’s second-largest city placed a high 29th. (Bellevue and Tacoma both ranked a little worst than Seattle, but hey, this blog isn’t called New To Bellevue.)
I can’t offer an explanation for the gap between these statistics and what I have witnessed on the ground in Seattle. Comments are welcomed.
But there still might be a moral. Allstate ranked pass-funny-and-die Houston No. 161. A lot worse than Seattle.
Update: On September 1, Allstate released its 2011 driver safety ranking of 193 cities. Seattle fell from 128 to 147–and into the bottom quarter. In Seattle, you’re now 25% more likely to be in an accident than the national average. Bellevue and Tacoma both fell, too, but now rank slightly above Seattle. Spokane, the other Washington State city on the list, also dropped but ranks a relatively lofty 40.