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Don’t listen to the Allstate haters, Seattle drivers, you’re actually pretty great ❤❤

heartwEvery year, Allstate releases its “America’s Best Drivers Report,” which claims to rank our cities from best to worst. Seattle placed a dismal 184 out of 200 this year, our worst score yet. And every year, news sources in those cities eat it up.

“Seattle drivers among the very worst in the nation” reports KOMO. “It’s official: Seattle drivers really are terrible, study confirms,” says Geekwire.

Don’t listen to these haters, Seattle drivers. We here at Seattle Bike Blog wouldn’t trade you for drivers from any other American city. ❤❤❤❤❤❤

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For example, when friends from my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri (Allstate’s 85th safest drivers in America) visit Seattle for the first time, I like to show them a magic trick: I start to enter a crosswalk and the busy traffic actually stops to let us cross.

Now, I know people don’t always stop — we still have to work on this, Seattle — but back in Missouri, essentially nobody ever stops. I’m pretty sure most people driving there don’t even know you’re supposed to stop for people in a crosswalk (for years I thought crosswalks were just to tell people where to cross, and I scored very high on the driver’s test). When people do stop, it’s more of a friendly courtesy thing than basic rule following.

And it’s not just crosswalks. When I’m on my bike in Seattle and I arrive at a traffic circle or four-way stop at the same time as someone driving, the person driving nearly always pauses to let me go first. This drove me crazy when I first moved here. “If it’s your turn, just go!” the Missouri driver in me wanted to yell.

But I’ve grown to understand that Seattle’s passive, deferential driving style is actually wonderful, especially compared to the alternative. A person driving defensively might annoy you, but a person driving aggressively might kill you. And most people in Seattle drive very defensively. I now show my appreciation with a big smile and wave.

I know, I know, anecdotes are not data, and the Allstate data appears to show that Seattle drivers suck real bad. Well, let’s look a bit closer.

Allstate, as an insurance company, bases these rankings on “property damage collision frequency,” basically the number of car insurance claims filed. So Seattle drivers are more likely to file a car insurance claim more often than people in most other US cities. More insurance claims must mean worse driving, right?

Of course not! Unless you are an insurance actuary, this is a totally pointless way to measure driving safety. When it comes to the relative safety of drivers in different cities, there’s only one measure that matters: Deaths and serious injuries. Bent fenders can be fixed. Life and health is precious.

From Seattle's Vision Zero Plan.
From Seattle’s Vision Zero Plan.

And by that measure, Seattle is among the best, especially for a big US city. In fact, a 2014 report ranks Seattle as the second-safest big city for people walking. The only city to rank higher was Boston, which conspicuously ranked dead last (#200) on Allstate’s list.

So what does Allstate consider the “safest driving city” in America? Kansas City, Kansas, a largely suburban city adjacent to the more urban Kansas City, Missouri. The five-year average traffic fatality rate in KCK is 10.5 per 100,000 residents (it was 6.8 in 2013, a particularly good year for the city according to City-Data.com)

By comparison, Seattle’s five-year traffic fatality average is 4.2 per 100,000 residents. Boston’s average is 2.9. So if you live in Allstate’s supposedly “safest driving city,” you’re 150 percent more likely to die in a traffic collision than you are in Seattle and 262 percent more likely than in Boston, Allstate’s worst city. Allstate’s report is almost exactly backwards.

As we reported previously, Seattle may have the best chance of reaching Vision Zero among all other major cities because we are starting from a much lower position. Seattle’s 4.2 death rate is still 4.2 people too high. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and road safety investments to reach zero.

But Seattle drivers should be aware that you are on the forefront of traffic safety in the US. You are partners in the solution to this enormous problem.

In fact, the term “Seattle driver” just feels so strange to write. Because people here aren’t defined by the way they get around. Most people in Seattle get around by different modes depending on the task at hand.

According to a 2013 Cascade Bicycle Club survey, 43 percent of Seattle residents ride a bike at least once a month, and only 22 percent said they never ride a bike.

When you walk, take transit or bike for many trips in your daily life, you see our streets differently than if you drive everywhere. And perhaps that’s why so many people stop at crosswalks or defer to people biking: They know that’s how they would want others to treat them.

I know getting back into biking as an adult dramatically changed the way I drive. You start to see streets as places for people walking and biking and driving and selling goods and waiting for the bus and otherwise being part of our city. Streets are not simply pipes for cars, and those people “in the way” are real-life people, not obstacles to fume over or honk at (though, of course, there are always a handful of total assholes out there who give Seattle drivers a bad name).

Safe streets work

The biggest difference in traffic safety may have less to do with driving culture and more to do with the engineering of the streets themselves. So many of Seattle’s residential streets are too skinny for people driving in opposite directions to go at the same time. This means that the average driving speeds on many of our residential streets is already close to 20 mph. And as we know, speed is the single most important factor in avoiding serious injury and death on our streets.

From SDOT.
From SDOT.

But Seattle has gone even further, working to improve safety on our busy streets, too. Since the 1970s, the city has been conducting road safety projects that upgrade highway-style four-lane streets into city-style three lane streets with center turn lanes. Sometimes — though not always — these projects included bike lanes, which tended to draw most of the media attention.

Less reported, however, were the big increases in safety for people driving. From NE 125th Street to Nickerson to NE 75th Street and more, collisions dropped significantly on these streets while injury-causing collisions plummeted. So what may have been a deadly t-bone collision turned into a fender bender, and what may have been a fender bender didn’t happen at all. At the time, people called these projects a “war on cars.” The city is waging a very strange war if their strategy is to protect the enemy.

That’s why we pen this love letter to people driving in Seattle today. You’re my neighbor, and we’re in this crazy safe streets thing together. Your car insurance company may not love you, but we do.


— Seattle Bike Blog

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25 responses to “Don’t listen to the Allstate haters, Seattle drivers, you’re actually pretty great ❤❤”

  1. pqbuffington

    Biting my tongue…hard.

  2. Joe Johnston

    I also come from an area, Dallas/Fort Worth(Texas in general really), where cars and car culture are the dominant force in all things transportation and the highway is king.

    There is certainly always more that can be done to improve safety, but there are times I get the feeling that Seattle just doesn’t get how lucky we are to live in a place that is much safer to cycle, walk, etc. than most.

    1. b

      I grew up in DFW too and totally agree. I was surprised at how negative everyone was about the bike infrastructure and environment here at first, but quickly absorbed the same attitude. It’s always refreshing to travel back to Texas and get a renewed sense of appreciation for Seattle.

      When I first visited Seattle, it completely blew my mind that cars stopped for me at a crosswalk. I felt like such a VIP.

  3. Robert

    THANK YOU THANK YOU for providing hard statistics about the relative safety of traffic from city to city.

    I am so tired of people yammering on about “Drivers from City XYZ are the WORST in the world!!” I have yet to visit or live in a city where people haven’t claimed they’re home to the worst drivers in the world.

    The next time you feel Seattle/Dallas/Timbuktu/etc. etc. is home to the worst drivers in the world, please bear the heuristic delusion in mind. This delusion arises from the fact that people driving safely is a non-memorable event. That is, every time a driver obeys traffic laws and drives courteously, you simply don’t register it. But when someone cuts you off and nearly causes an accident, of course that leaves a huge mark in your memory bank. The result is you have amnesia for the literally tens of thousands of drivers who were driving just fine, and only remember the dozen of reckless drivers who ruined your commute. It’s totally understandable, human part of the condition. I harbor the same delusion. But with hard statistics (from police reports, hospital rooms, etc.), we can finally make a true assessment of the traffic conditions of a given city.

    By the way, this same delusion applies to the proverbial arrogant, mad cyclist who is bent on making life miserable for pedestrians and drivers. Again, most cyclists are courteous and obey traffic laws. But we only remember the Armstrong wannabees, and so we characterize the whole cycling community in that way.

    Thanks for the great post!

  4. Meredith

    So my only comment is that this Allstate so-called study is fundamentally flawed and pretty much an advertising gimick, since it only takes into account drivers insured by Allstate. Having lived, driven, and commuted by bicycle in cities like Miami (which until last month was the only place I’d had someone try to intentionally run me off the road (turns out it happens in the Northwest too)) I can tell you drivers elsewhere are worse and much more aggressive….and that the worst drivers in places like Miami are the least likely to be insured….

  5. ninjaface

    Many that live here don’t realize how good they have it! I know it’s not perfect here–the roads are rough, and bike lanes aren’t interconnected, by and large, or have gaps. I’m sure there’s other problems. This city feels welcoming from a cyclist standpoint because there are signs of newly installed paths and road diets. You can tell, just by casual observation, the city is moving in the right direction.

    I do bicycle delivery downtown, so I’m in traffic all day. I’ve not had one person “teach me a lesson” because I’m on “their road,’” nor has anyone thrown anything at me. In fact, hardly anyone even beeps as they pass. Overall, I’d say Seattle motorists are pretty tame: not aggressive or unusually discourteous.

    Even Rainier wasn’t that bad. I just took the right lane and that was that. Not one beep or close pass. I was in the left third of the lane too. I expected much worse after all the ballyhoo. In many parts of the country, you really have to be on guard when you do that because drivers become indignant and outraged. They lay on their horns and do all sorts of nasty stuff.

    Seattle drivers, I think you are great, too!

  6. bill

    I will grant that local drivers are better around bikes now than they were a few years ago. But contending that Seattleites are good drivers? Oh dear. You don’t drive enough, Tom. It is true that no one stops at the end of freeway onramps anymore, waiting for a big gap to merge into. Those folks have all died, one way or another. But the rest of it — flouting speed limits, no concept of safe following distance, changing lanes with inadequate room and then slowing down, blowing stop signs, blowing through uncontrolled intersections, stopping in crosswalks — the dangerous things our “good” drivers do are nearly unenumerable.

    Besides the dependable lack of enforcement, I think a major contributory factor to poor driving is that a written test is no longer required for license renewal. Reading the driver’s handbook every four years would be a useful refresher for a lot of people. It would also be a formal way to educate drivers about new road features, such as bike boxes and other new road markings.

    1. Peri Hartman

      I don’t think safe drivers are defined so much as to how well they follow rules but how much attention they pay to the moment. Rules help those who don’t or aren’t able to pay attention. So, while all the rule breaking and, to some degree, rudeness are technically bad, those drivers might be alert and never get into an accident.

      Honestly, I’m annoyed but much less concerned about a driver who is too close behind me and wants me out of the way compared to someone on a cell phone in the lane next to me. One time I was in the Dexter bike lane in slow traffic. A driver slowly passed me on the left and then proceeded to merge into the bike lane as soon as her passenger door passed me. I rapped on her car and she stopped, opened her window, and said “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you” — just after she drove right next to me with my lights on and bright yellow jacket. Bad driver ! But didn’t break any rules.

      Further, I think there is a distinction between nice drivers and good drivers. Seattle notoriously has “nice” drivers. If a nice driver sees you (operative word “if”), they will stop and wait for you to cross the intersection, etc. I have no idea how we really rate. Nor do I have any idea on how we rate for “good” driving. Neither can directly be measured by Allstate’s methods.

      1. BusBiker

        But especially in the case of safe following distance–you can be paying attention, but if you’re traveling at 60mph and are so close to me that I can’t see your headlights, if I have to rapidly brake for any reason, you’re going to be smashing into the back of my vehicle because physics says so. And the back of my vehicle is where my precious cargo in the form of a car seat with a toddler is. People who have no idea how close they actually are to the person in front of them (speaking of paying attention and doing some thinking… 3 or 4 seconds behind, please) are the main contributors to 3+ car pileups all around. Some rules are just rules. Some rules are a lot more than that.

    2. Tom Monroe

      I’m so glad you mentioned safe following distance. Safe drivers keep it, unsafe drivers don’t. Any discussion of safety that doesn’t include it is pointless.

      1. Anandakos

        “Safe drivers keep it”. And then jerks merge into it.

  7. biliruben

    Having recently moved to Albuquerque after living (and, at the time, suffering) with Seattle drivers, who I thought too deferential, and easy to anger, boy do I miss ’em.

    Albuquerque drivers are really bad, and the wide, over-engineered 7 lane urban highways they have constructed allow them to go 70 right through downtown. I won’t even discuss the actual highways. Wow.

    An odd difference however, is if they do look up from their cell phones long enough to slam on their brakes, they are extremely accommodating. They stop and wave and give a wide birth, and (something I find annoying, but am getting used to), they assume you will run the stop signs, and wait, and wait, even if you do stop.

    Then the slam the peddle to the floor again!

    None of the bike hatred of Seattle, though they slaughter peds and bikes here at an astounding rate. Ghost bikes everywhere.


  8. Law Abider

    While Seattle is still one of the friendlier places to be a pedestrian, it definitely seems to be slipping in the recent years. While I hate to use the tech world as a scapegoat, they ARE bringing people from all over the country, from places where pedestrians aren’t king like Seattle. Couple this with the fact that there are more and more overpowered “luxury” cars around the city, which disconnect drivers from the outside world, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

    Your crosswalk anecdote is still mostly status quo; I have a similar story where 7 years ago, I stepped out into the 20th/Leary crosswalk to the horror of my visiting friends, one from Philly and one from LA, only to have them be blown away that cars actually stopped. However, it seems more and more that as a pedestrian, I tend to assume that every car that is going to run me over, which can make for tense walking or running situations.

    Hell, I had one incident recently, where as a pedestrian (runner) at a four way stop, a car to my right tried to gun it from their stop sign to scare me back (I had already entered the intersection), I didn’t jump back and just stopped in their path. He then honked at me and started yelling that I need to “wait my turn”. He got a shouting lesson in RCW 46.61.235 for a good two minutes, as he continued to argue with me (I wouldn’t budge from in front of him). Granted, a shouting match in pedestrian traffic laws is a far outlier, but I usually have someone fail to yield at four way stops at least once a week (I tend to be more defensive for unmarked intersections).

    But I’ll still take Seattle drivers, any day.

    1. Tom Monroe

      I worked in an office building at 5th and James Street (near the international district) a few years ago. After the 2nd pedestrian fatality at that intersection in a year, I started watching pedestrians. I would take 10 or 15 minutes randomly during the day (and after work), and just watch pedestrians, and see how many checked both ways before crossing. *Almost nobody does*. As a pedestrian, I would estimate that you’re about a million times more likely to get hit in an intersection as you are walking down the street, so I would think people would treat intersections accordingly. Being in the right-of-way legally doesn’t make you any less dead if you get hit by a car. I would bet that putting crossing signals in is probably counter-productive when it comes to engendering safe behavior on the part of pedestrians. I wouldn’t be surprised if people who come from cities where not every intersection has a walk signal probably have better habits than places with walk signals everywhere. People who just walk into intersections without looking, assuming that cars will stop are just gambling with their lives.

  9. Clark in Vancouver

    People in Vancouver talk about how “we have the worst drivers” and then someone who’s lived elsewhere corrects them and says that they’re wrong because in City X they’re worse.

  10. RossB

    I wonder why there is such a big disconnect between fatalities (or even injuries — I don’t know if that was studied) and insurance claims. You would think there would be a pretty strong correspondence. After all, what really costs an insurance company is when they have to pay for medical care.

    So, I have a few theories as to why we are bad for one, but not the other. First, as mentioned, it could be that their data is just flawed (it is based on their claims, not industry wide). It could be that we drive too fast on the freeway, and not on the arterials. This would make sense to me. We have our share of big streets (Aurora, Lake City Way, Rainier) but if you really want to get there, take the freeway. Compared to a lot of cities, our freeways are very convenient, and our city streets are not. 15th NW or 15th NE just don’t move very fast. This keeps the speeds down. On the other hand, accidents on the freeway (our freeways certainly) are often fender benders. Traffic is not moving that fast, then suddenly stops. Everyone has their seat belt on, is driving a relatively safe car, but it costs a bundle to fix it. It may also be that — we are driving nicer cars. There is a lot of wealth in this city, so maybe the small collision just costs a lot more. It is possible our cars are much safer as well (fewer trucks, more Volvos). Finally, it is possible that medical care is much better here than in other cities. Medic One is really good, and so is Harborview, for trauma. Who knows?

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I was thinking wealth has something to do with it, too. Back in St Louis, people in collisions often just trade cash and don’t tell insurance at all (nobody wants a rate hike). Then you may or may not actually fix your car.

      Cars are so nice in Seattle. I imagine more of them are worth the insurance claim than in Missouri.

    2. Josh

      Bodily injury claims tend to be more *severe*, but much less *frequent* than property claims.

      In a crowded city, drivers routinely bump their thousand-dollar bumper skins against things, and sometimes the things they hit have $5,000 paint jobs or $10,000 body work. But because of those crowded, chaotic conditions, drivers are usually going slowly enough that they don’t hurt the people inside their vehicles.

      Where lanes are wide and traffic flows freely, there are fewer bumps and scrapes, but more high-speed collisions that maim or kill vehicle occupants.

      The same laws of intertia that say hitting a pedestrian is more fatal at 35 mph than 20 mph apply to vehicle occupants crashing to a stop from 35 mph vs. 20 mph. Sure, passengers have more padding and protection than pedestrians, but they’re still dumping huge amounts of momentum in very short distances.

    3. biliruben

      I think the cost of fixing cars is also much higher in Seattle than I remember anywhere else I have lived. That’s just anecdotal however, so if anyone has any hard data on that, it would be cool to look at.

      Probably just getting old. I still think a good deli sandwich should be $5.

  11. ronp

    Good article! All these type of stories need to make clear that the area defined as “Seattle” is not the City of Seattle — pop 650K — but rather the MSA which is 3.5 million. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seattle_metropolitan_area

    Sadly much of the MSA is poorly planned suburban sprawl, but lots of good people live and work out there and fight to make it better in terms of urban design and livability.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      They are using city limits in their data. For example, Seattle and Bellevue have their own entries. As does Kansas City, MO and Kansas City, KS. Either that or their data is even messier than I thought.

  12. […] Don’t believe the hype; Seattle drivers are great. […]

  13. Donde Groovily

    “So what may have been a deadly t-bone collision turned into a fender bender”

    And a fender bender is the property damage claim that Allstate is basing their ranking on.

  14. Joseph Singer

    Maybe “statistically” Seattle drivers are good, but just visually seeing what drivers *do* every day I’m not impressed by Seattle drivers. Every day I see drivers block crosswalks, creep into intersections when making turns disregarding pedestrians and bicyclists and not yielding to them.

  15. […] incompetence of other drivers. We may have even nodded our heads at the Allstate report saying Seattle has some of the worst drivers in the […]

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