U. S. Department of Transportation
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
HS 808 705
List of Tables
List of Figures
Perceived Safety on the Beltway
A few members of the first group said they were apprehensive about driving on the Beltway but none felt it was so dangerous that they would not drive it. One member of the group volunteered that it is no worse than similar kinds of interstate highways around other major cities. He said that the Beltway around Baltimore, for example, is no better. In agreement that the Capital Beltway problems are no worse than problems on urban interstates all over the country, another participant spontaneously referred to the current enforcement campaign on aggressive driving. He said that he thinks there are more drivers like that every year and that it is a nationwide problem, not one that is confined to the Capital area.
Group 2 thought the Beltway is fairly hazardous. When the subject was raised by the moderator, one participant after another recited something they personally felt to be dangerous about the road. One of the women in the group said she does not know whether it is the road or the drivers that make her feel threatened. However, none of the members of this group ever had a crash on the Beltway. One woman said her husband did. The car in front of him crashed into another and then somebody hit him. It was clearly a congestion related crash. The same woman also talked about a near miss in which her car was forced to the shoulder by a truck changing lanes. Three members of the group took the position that the Beltway was not especially dangerous compared to other urban interstates they have driven.
Reaction was mixed when Group 3 was asked how safe they think they are on the Beltway. The first to answer said he did not think there was anything inherently dangerous about the road but he sees a lot of unsafe driving on it. He says he likes to drive it at 65 or 70 and a lot of cars, weaving from lane to lane and cutting other drivers off, pass him like he was standing still. Several others agreed, one adding that it is even worse at night when he usually travels the Beltway than it is during the day. One of the women said that it is very dangerous in bad weather when the aggressive drivers with 4-wheel drive vehicles act like they could stop on a dime. One member of Group 3 felt safer on the perimeter interstate around Atlanta than the Capital Beltway. He believes that it has been expanded more to keep up with the increasing traffic volume and has been better maintained.
When Group 4 (the first aggressive driver group) was asked how safe they felt on the Beltway, the initial response was "quite" safe and the body language of this group seemed to indicate that most of them agreed. However, one woman said that it is pretty hazardous during rush hours and tries to avoid using it during those times. Several other group members also talked about dangerous driving and design hazards that made them somewhat apprehensive about the Beltway. One of the moderately aggressive women said she does not believe the Beltway is any more dangerous than a lot of other highways in the area, I-395 for example. She continued that it is rush hour that is dangerous, not the Beltway itself. Another woman said that one of the things that makes it less safe than it could be are people who "drive scared" when they are on it.
Asked how the Beltway compares in safety with other interstates they drive, most members of Group 4 responded that there was not a lot of difference. One said that I-66, west of the Beltway is more dangerous to drive on than the Beltway itself because it is even more congested. Only one person in the group experienced a crash on the Beltway. He was stopped at the end of a ramp leading into University Avenue which has no merge lane. The car behind him was watching traffic on University and assumed he pulled out when there was a small break in the traffic, hitting him in the rear end.
Members of Group 5 (the group with the greatest tendency toward aggressive driving) were generally less concerned about the Beltway's safety than the other groups. The first member of Group 5 to speak about safety on the Beltway said that he thinks he is a bit safer on it than some other interstates because the congestion keeps the speeds down so that people rarely get killed when they crash. However, a second person said there are sections of the Beltway that are not very safe and mentioned the curves near the Mormon Temple. Next, someone talked about the danger of drivers who are not familiar with the Beltway.
Truck drivers expressed mixed opinions about safety on the Beltway. The Skippy's drivers said that the road gets less safe every day but they think it is caused by congestion, not by a change in the roadway or a change in driving behavior. Some North American Van Lines drivers also think it is getting more dangerous but at least one of them thinks it is less dangerous than city streets when driving a big rig. The Roadway Express drivers do not think the road is particularly dangerous but they see a lot of dangerous driving on it. Some of the drivers at North American believe that the Beltway is somewhat more hazardous to drive than other interstate highways they have driven. However, one driver said that the interstate around Atlanta may be worse. He said, however, that the drivers are more aggressive on the Capital Beltway.
One member of Group 1 said the major thing that makes the Beltway more hazardous than other urban interstates is the volume of interstate truck traffic on it. He would like to see a bypass that would take the I-95 through truck traffic off the Beltway. One of the women in this group remarked that trucks are frightening because they are so big and that it is hard to see around them. (This from the young female college student who says that trucks are about the only thing she worries about on the Beltway.)
Group 1 turned to unsafe driving behavior early in the discussion. One woman said that it is frightening to look in your mirror and see someone closing rapidly knowing that there is no way they can slow down enough to avoid hitting your car. They usually cut someone off to get into an adjacent lane and then cut back in front. Someone remarked that this is aggressive driving and added that it also occurs in merge lanes where this kind of driver has no regard for the hazards he is causing and just expects other drivers to keep out of the way. Another participant expressed annoyance that these drivers never merge until the last possible second. If a lane closes out, they often continue in it a mile past the warning sign because it is moving faster. Then they expect people who merged earlier to yield when they finally change lanes.
Although the current law enforcement campaign against aggressive driving was mentioned spontaneously in all groups, it came up earliest in Group 5 (the most aggressive group) when they were discussing their perceptions of the road's safety. The man who mentioned it said he thought that the number of drivers who cut other drivers off is increasing, not only on the Beltway but all over the country.
Inattention came up as a Beltway hazard in Group 1. A self professed aggressive driver in this group said it drives him crazy when people drive 55 and pay no attention to traffic behind them, cutting in front of traffic that is moving faster without ever looking in their mirrors. The group chimed in with other examples of inattention, including reading newspapers while driving and talking on the phone.
Short exit ramps were mentioned as a hazard by one of the members of Group 3. He says that eight cars waiting to get onto Georgia Avenue can back cars up onto the Beltway. One of the women in Group 3 said she thinks there are several other design faults that are hazardous. She referred specifically to exits with no merge lanes onto local streets (Georgia Avenue is one of them), left hand entrances that merge into the fast lane, and places where several lanes of traffic must be crossed in a short distance in order to exit. One of the young aggressive males in Group 4 said that he thinks the curves in the area of the Mormon Temple are fairly dangerous. He said that traffic moves entirely too fast in that section. One of the particular complaints in Group 2 was lane drops. Another was left lane exits.
A Group 3 participant pointed out that one of the hazards of the Beltway that is different from other places is that there are so many out-of-town drivers, not only people from other parts of the country, but a lot of drivers from other cultures.
Trucks were mentioned by a member of Group 2 as making the roadway dangerous. One of the women in Group 5 also complained about truck drivers. She remarked that some of the most aggressive drivers she has seen are truck drivers who just bull their way through traffic, intimidating everyone else on the road. She also mentioned the frequency of truck roll-overs on Beltway exits, which she said she reads about every day. It bothers her primarily because it backs up traffic.
The hazards mentioned by commercial drivers are very close to the same as those mentioned by drivers of passenger vehicles. Aggressive drivers were mentioned in all three commercial driver groups as one of the Beltway hazards. One said, "They are just out there, hammer down, and act as if they do not even see you." Another trucker said that even non-aggressive motorists act as though they own the road and that trucks have no right to be on the road.
One of the North American drivers, an older man, said that he thinks the prevailing speeds are faster now than they were a few years ago. Traffic is moving at 65 to 70 miles per hour these days and that is faster than he is comfortable driving. Asked if truckers were partly to blame for the increased speed, he responded that he thought they were, especially drivers of dump truck and "roll off" trucks who get paid by the load. They want to move as many loads as they can so they have an incentive to push the limits. Later on in the discussion, however, another North American driver said that he did not think speed was a particular problem on the Beltway. He said that there is not much speeding going on during rush hours because traffic is almost stopped. Even when traffic is light, he says most people are driving 65 or 70, which is over the speed limit, but not dangerous.
Inattention also was mentioned by all three groups of truck drivers. They said they often saw motorists reading maps while driving on the Beltway and also people talking on cellular phones. The dump truck drivers said weather is a big factor that affects the safety of the Beltway. When it is raining or snowing, the road gets very congested and it is hard to see. "Rubbernecking" was identified as a safety factor on its own.