U. S. Department of Transportation
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
HS 808 705
The reason Capital area motorists use the Beltway was the same in 1997 as it was in 1994. They believe the Beltway still is the quickest, easiest way to get people where they want to be. In many cases, people do not believe there are other choices, especially if the trip involves crossing the Potomac from Virginia to Maryland or vice versa.
Although some motorists are apprehensive about the safety of driving on the Beltway, most are not. Even those who see the Beltway as more hazardous than other interstate highways consider the risks acceptable. Few of the participants have experienced crashes on the Beltway, although many have experienced near misses.
As in 1994, congestion still is the major issue motorists and truckers dislike about the Beltway because congestion interferes with drivers' desires to complete their trips quickly. Although safety issues emerge when people are asked what they dislike about the Beltway, they do not seem to be as universal as complaints about congestion.
When motorists were asked to evaluate the safety of driving on the Beltway, a sizable minority described it as hazardous. Most, however, did not think it more hazardous than travel on other urban interstates. Many believe, however, that it is more hazardous now than it was three years ago, reflecting increasing concerns about aggressive driving behavior.
Focus group participants listed and ranked perceived causes of Beltway crashes. There were some remarkable differences between the 1994 and 1997 groups. Unsafe driving behaviors were among the most important factors in both years, but the 1997 participants ranked them among their top three causes twice as often as the 1994 participants. Excessive speed, aggressive driving, inattention, unsafe lane changing, and tailgating were most frequently designated major crash causes in the 1997 focus groups. Aggressive driving was the number one concern among the "general" motorist groups. It was mentioned as one of the three most serious crash causes by 53 percent of the participants. This compares with only 2 percent among the 1994 participants. Interestingly, the aggressive driver groups were less concerned about aggressive driving, 15 percent of them mentioned aggressive driving as one of the major crash causes.
The perception that congestion is a major crash cause was only half as frequent in 1997 as it was three years earlier. A possible explanation is that current concern about unsafe drivers has drawn attention away from congestion. Beltway traffic has not diminished in the past three years, and there have been many roadway and traffic management improvements that may have relieved some congestion.
Roadway design and maintenance factors also have declined as perceived major causes of Beltway crashes. Mentions of design and maintenance factors as major crash causes decreased from 97 percent in 1994 to 33 percent in 1997. Merge lanes where motorists share acceleration and deceleration lanes were the top concern in the category, and the percentage did not change much between 1994 and 1997.
Commercial drivers' lists of crash causes were similar to those of other Beltway users.