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Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital of bad driving

Survey shows stark raving loonies rule the roads around here

- - Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The best drivers in America live in South Dakota. The worst in Washington, D.C. The most boringly average in Cleveland.

Or so, at least, the latest report of accident rates from Allstate Insurance Co. tells us. It's hard to know quite what to make of the news. I mean, since when did we need statistical computation to confirm the obvious? Two plus two equals four, Shakespeare wrote some pretty good plays, the Law of Noncontradiction holds everywhere (except congressional subcommittees), and Washington's drivers are stark raving loonies. Much changes in our lives from year to year; much is leveled by the silent artillery of time. But not these. The great truths abide: Our fortress of certainty in a world grown dark and doubtful.

And yet, I suppose, Allstate's quantification of accidents could be useful — bringing home to us, for example, just how bad Washington's drivers are. If this were a race to the bottom, Washington (at 117 percent worse than the national average) would be about to lap its closest competitor, Baltimore (87 percent worse than average).

Of course, if this genuinely were a car race, Washington would have spun out of control in the opening minutes — sideswiping Providence, R.I. (81 percent down), clipping Glendale, Calif. (78 percent rotten), and finally running full tilt into Alexandria (seventh on the list, at 63 percent on the incompetent side of driving). Then Washington would have climbed from its car screaming that it practices law with a major K Street firm, its best friend works on Capitol Hill and the accident is everyone else's fault.

I drove from Rapid City to Sioux Falls recently: 350 miles of South Dakota tranquility. A little over four and a half hours, the trip took. And yes, that's roughly the time it takes Washington's commuters to fight their way through M Street, over Key Bridge, along the George Washington Parkway, down eight miles of the Beltway, and out the toll road to Reston, assuming, of course, they don't smash into one another along the way.

Georgia Avenue, 16th Street, the Anacostia Freeway, North Capitol, the John Philip Sousa Bridge, Dupont Circle: Does anybody who has actually driven these want to defend the city's drivers? Over the years, for my sins, I've had to inch a car through Rome, Rio de Janeiro, and Tijuana, Mexico — notoriously awful places to drive. But I'd put D.C. up against any of them. Bad drivers, worse roads and an obscurity of signage hardly to be found outside of Philadelphia. Sisyphus no longer rolls a stone in the Underworld. He's forced to drive at rush hour out New York Avenue.

Still, let's be fair. Recent surveys suggest that, in fact, the average Washington commute is about 45 minutes, covering 12 miles: an hour and a half a day lost, to go 24 miles — one of the worst commutes in the country. And the total number of cars encountered per mile is much, much higher than anything the average South Dakota driver might see. The difference in cars per hour is smaller — since South Dakotans are getting 80 miles down the road in that hour, while Washingtonians are managing only 16 miles. But even so, despite all the Dakotan cows and silos, Washington offers drivers a lot more to run into.

Of course, that doesn't mean they actually have to run into all the world offers them though they seem to do it with appalling regularity. And here we get down to it. The long empty highways through the vastness of the American Midwest teach patience. The quiet, tree-lined streets of the small towns, filled with the families of neighbors you know, teach courtesy. The shape of the landscape teaches vigilance and skill.

And the stop-and-go of Washington driving — what does that teach? The rage of drivers who jerk forward a few feet on Constitution Avenue and then slam on the brakes, all while attempting to multitask on a cellphone. The menace of those who speed down a suburban Potomac street to gain a few seconds on their commutes. The monomania of someone in Georgetown claiming a parking space. Whether or not D.C.'s drivers start out as dreadful, the bottlenecks of Pennsylvania Avenue eventually instruct them in the deep Washingtonian disease.

That's why we in South Dakota, good as we are behind the wheel, don't condemn Washington's drivers. Hialeah, Fla.; Newark, N.J.; Miami, San Francisco — other cities on Allstate's list of high-accident places: Sure, we assume that their poor driving derives from a lack of character. But Washington? No, we withhold judgment on the nation's capital, in the same way we refuse to blame children for bad schooling.

I mean, the seat of government lies in Washington, D.C. Given the federal government's general track record, why is it any surprise that the people around it learn peculiar lessons — even about driving to work?

Joseph Bottum, author of the forthcoming memoirs "The Christmas Plains," spent almost a decade driving in D.C. Two years ago he returned to his native South Dakota, while he was still in one piece.