Local drivers fall in national report

Vancouver slips from 67 to 82 in Allstate survey

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Vancouver drivers are getting comparatively worse, according to one of the nation's largest providers of auto insurance. Allstate Insurance Company — you know, the one with the "You're in Good Hands" motto — released its ninth annual Allstate America's Best Drivers Report this week.

The company uses U.S. Census Bureau numbers to find the 200 largest incorporated cities, then takes data from its damage claims to rank cities in terms of having the best drivers to the worst. It also calculates how often a driver in any given city will get into an accident; the national average is one accident every 10 years.

Fort Collins, Colo., was ranked as having the best drivers. They go an average of 13.9 years between accidents, the same rate as drivers in the No. 2 city, Boise, Idaho.

Vancouver finished in the top half at No. 82, but down from No. 67 last year. Drivers here average an accident once every 9.5 years, the same rate as those in nine other cities including St. Louis, Mo., Memphis. Tenn., Durham, N.C., and Louisville, Ky.

In Washington, Vancouver finished behind Spokane (No. 45) but ahead of Tacoma and Seattle, ranked 144th and 160th, respectively.

Portland ranked 154th. Eugene made the best showing out of Pacific Northwest cities, finishing 10th.

Cities in the bottom 10 included San Francisco, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Providence, R.I. Taking "worst drivers" honors was Washington, D.C., where drivers average one accident every 4.8 years. (Allstate doesn't insure any drivers in Massachusetts, so that explains the absence of Boston, often named in informal polls as the home to some really terrible drivers.)

Allstate represents 1 out of 10 drivers, "making this report a realistic snapshot of what's happening on America's roadways," Shauna McBride, an Allstate regional spokeswoman, said in a press release. She said property damage claims were analyzed over a 2-year period, from January 2010 to December 2011, and excluded "external influences such as weather or road construction."

Rankings aren't used to determine insurance rates, she said.

Speeding, tailgating

The Washington state Department of Transportation keeps track of accidents by jurisdiction. The most recently published figures are from 2011.

On Vancouver city streets that year, there were 1,824 collisions reported to law enforcement. The accidents resulted in 1,042 serious and minor injuries and five fatalities.

Collision rates were highest on minor arterial roads, followed by major arterials, highways and interstates, according to WSDOT.

Vancouver Police Sgt. Pat Johns, who supervises the traffic unit, said the two biggest factors in collisions that he sees are speeding and following too closely.

Often, drivers he pulls over either plead ignorance or blame another driver.

On Tuesday morning he pulled over a driver for going 36 mph in her neighborhood -- she said she was unaware of the 25 mph speed limit. He gave her a ticket.

Then he pulled over a driver for speeding, but the driver protested another driver had been tailgating. Johns spoke to that driver too, and he wasn't confident he knew who was at fault so he let them both off with a warning.

"People feel like, 'I've got to drive faster, this guy is on my butt,'" Johns said. He said he often pulls people over who claim they are just going with the flow of traffic -- but that doesn't excuse exceeding the speed limit, he said. He points out to drivers that, when possible, they can always switch lanes and let the aggressive driver pass.

Other key causes of accidents, he said, include failing to yield to oncoming traffic when making a left-hand turn, failing to signal when turning and failing to check blind spots.

Johns said he has pulled over drivers who cut him off when they switched lanes because, while they may have checked their mirrors, they didn't see him on his motorcycle. "I'll say, 'Don't you know you have a blind spot?' When I say those words, you can see the light bulb go off," Johns said.

Then there's the wonderful catch-all "driver inattention," which includes yakking on a phone (yes, hands-free devices are OK), texting, grooming, eating and fiddling with the stereo, Johns said.

Drivers can also zone out.

"You're driving along, and you've got your mind on where you are going and what you need to get accomplished for the day," Johns said. He recommends drivers, instead of locking their eyes straight ahead, go through a cycle of glancing in their mirrors, to their sides and at the speedometer.

Adding to driver frustration has been consistent population growth, which leads to more congestion. Johns said the area around Interstate 205 and Mill Plain Boulevard, between approximately 97th and 123rd Avenues and a few blocks north and south, ranks as the worst in the city for congestion.

"Folks are coming from God knows where to our city, and they are bringing their driving habits with them," Johns said. "I'm sure that's contributed to some of the problems as well."

Best Drivers in Nation

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.