Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Metro history: America fears the Washington, D.C. Beltway

November 9, 2011 - 02:37 PM
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(Photo: Popular Mechanics)

Driving in the District can be scary, frustrating, and maddening, as I imagine most of you know. Our fears were nationally validated, however, in April of 1984 when Popular Mechanics magazine included one of our transportation nightmares on their list of the 10 Scariest Places to Drive in America. It's an ominous list and hardly an honor. The magazine's illustration is a fantastic skull and crossed highways in place of bones.

What's worse is that not only did D.C. make the list but Baltimore managed to do so, too.

Our big source of terror in the District is the 495 Beltway that wraps around our city. This highway "does to cars what cyclotrons do to atoms," the magazine says. "Commuters can cope, but for strangers, the mix of on-off traffic, the uncontrolled lane changing, and the speed threaten disaster." You bet they do. The magazine calls the Beltway "notorious" and cautions at mixing "doddering tourists" with "hotshot commuters."

And what's Baltimore's transportation vice back in 1984? Drunken drivers, according to Popular Mechanics. "You should stay out of Baltimore, especially at night," the magazine declares.

The Beltway has, of course, remained a risky ride in the years since Popular Mechanics released its list. Consider these words from a Maryland Department of Transportation study conducted in the last decade:

SHA accident statistics show that the Maryland portion of the Capital Beltway experienced 6,800 police-reported accidents during a three and a half year period between January 2000 and June 2003. These accidents resulted in an average rate of 58.1 accidents per 100 million vehicle miles of travel, which is significantly higher than the statewide average of 54.7 for a similarly designed highway. Many of these accidents occurred at, or approaching, an interchange.

Both rear-end and sideswipe accidents were significantly higher than the statewide average, which could be a symptom of the stopping and slow moving traffic. The truck related accidents were also significantly higher than the statewide average.

Drive with care, D.C. commuters. Transportation is a jungle. See the Popular Mechanics list yourself here and learn the other national transportation horrors that those magazine writers feared.

Read more pieces of Metro history here.

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