Opochtli Podcast #167 - Why are Idahos bad drivers?
Watching an SUV barrel down a Boise sidewalk to pass stalled traffic recently, I had an epiphany.
Nobody in Idaho knows how to freakin’ drive.
I see you nodding in agreement, reading this on your phone as you cruise down the Connector.
Motorists here are aggressive. Inattentive. Stupid.
Lend an ear to any law enforcement officer who patrols Treasure Valley roads. They’ll tell you.
“Believe it or not, most people do a good job,” Lt. Berle Stokes of the Meridian Police Department says with a chuckle.
“... But there’s certainly some knuckleheads intermixed there.”
Thank you, sir.
Navigating the Boise metro area clearly ain’t what it used to be, even a few years ago.
Idaho drivers have evolved into a strangely aggravating breed.
“Everybody’s in such a huge hurry,” Sgt. Scott Tulleners of the Idaho State Police says. “There’s also a lot of lack of accountability, too. We stop someone, write them a ticket — we’re just an inconvenience of their day. It’s like a lot of people just don’t care.”
Is that a reflection of society in general? Probably.
But crappy, treacherous driving in Southern Idaho takes every form imaginable. Following too closely. Not letting cars merge into traffic. Slowing down unnecessarily to allow cars to merge. Flipping illegal U-turns. Blasting through lights after they’ve turned red.
So who’s to blame?
Is it big-city transplants? They’re accustomed to bumper-to-bumper commutes in their mall-terrain vehicles.
Or is it longtime Idahoans? Natives weren’t forced to pay much attention to traffic until the last several years. Some drive below the speed limit, infuriating newcomers: “I’ve never been somewhere that gains an extra lane (I-84 in Nampa goes from two to three lanes) and traffic somehow manages to slow down,” a commenter griped recently on the Boise Reddit page. The thread’s title? “PSA: It is 55 mph for most of Eagle Road, not 30 mph.”)
Should we blame city planners and leaders? Roadways have not been able to keep pace with our head-spinning population growth. “I don’t know that they can,” Stokes says. “It’s going to take a while for the roads to catch up.”
I think it’s a perfect storm. Idaho’s bad-driving virus is caused by two wildly disparate motorist cultures and exacerbated by overflowing streets.
CALIFORNIA VS. IDAHO DRIVING
Andy Johnson thinks this three-pronged theory might have merit. A Boise police officer for nearly two decades, Johnson observes drivers from a unique perspective. He’s worked on the bicycle patrol for the past 14 years.
Also, he grew up in California. That’s where he learned to drive.
“My experience is that people in California are good drivers when they’re in that environment,” Johnson says. “They’re faster, they’re closer together, they all drive on the same page.
“People who are raised here are good drivers. They’re all on the same page together. But when you blend those two worlds, you have different ideologies of driving, and they don’t always work well together.
“You put them on the same roadway in a town that’s growing exponentially, where the infrastructure is lagging, you’re gonna have a clash. It doesn’t mean one driver is worse than the other. It means there’s going to be frustration, because everyone is pointing the finger at everyone else.”
Time and growth seem to have eroded “Boise values,” too.
“I’ve been here since the mid-’90s, and it just seems like there was a little bit more courtesy, and little bit more patience,” Johnson says. “People had a lot more respect for other people. Now the values have changed a little bit. ... It just seems to be a different mentality: ‘I’m in a hurry to get to my place, and it’s more important than you.’”
Is there a cultural component causing it? Johnson thinks so. “We live in a world of expedient consumerism,” he says. It’s filled with citizens burying their faces in electronic devices that provide instant gratification. “They become more self-absorbed, and they want what they want and they’re used to getting their way.”
That doesn’t translate to smiling, courteous motorists during rush hour at Glenwood and State streets.
“The internet and electronic devices teach you one thing growing up, but then you have to apply those skills to real life,” Johnson says. “It’s not all about you. There’s other people out there you have to consider.”
So basically, everybody in Boise is a terrible driver except me. And, fine, you — if you’ve read this far.
But one way or another, we all need to improve. Because the challenges are only getting worse.
MERIDIAN GROWTH, ‘HORRIBLE’ DRIVING
With a population of 106,410 in 2018, Meridian is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. There were seven fatal accidents inside city limits last year. That’s more than the prior three years combined.
Stokes calls it a “shocking” statistic. “We hope it’s an anomaly of some sort,” he says.
The total number of accidents in Meridian grew from 1,397 in 2013 to 1,733 in 2018. There were 88 road rage calls for service in 2013, and 114 in 2018. Citations? Naturally, those trended skyward, too.
“I do think it’s a small percentage of the motoring public that creates the problem,” Stokes says. “But that’s true for about any problem in society, right?”
Either way, the impact feels dramatic when you’re white-knuckling it during rush hour. Been on Eagle Road lately? Or near one of its intersections?
When traffic backs up toward Boise on Ustick Road, all bets are off. Almost any day, Stokes sees some jackwagon treat the center turn lane on Ustick as if it were a freeway. Impatient drivers just want to get home!
“They will hop in that center turn lane and I mean drive,” Stokes says. “I’ve seen people drive nearly a half-mile in that center turn lane because they’re trying to get around stopped traffic.”
That’s horrible. Meridian law allows 100 feet.
“It is horrible,” Stokes agrees. “Obviously, it can lead to all kinds of stuff — head-on collisions and all kinds of problems.”
‘INSANE’ INTERSTATE SPEEDS
Drivers on the interstate can get even nuttier. Tulleners has a guaranteed method for ticket writing. He just waits until cars thin out in the evening, and then parks on the median near Camping World in Meridian.
“I can get 90- and 100-mile-per-hour speeders all day long,” Tulleners says. “It’s insane. I can get several high-speed — I’m talking 90-plus in a 65-mile-per-hour zone — pretty repeatedly out there. I’ll stop a car, write ’em a citation, and I’ll turn around and on the way back, there’ll be one that I can’t turn around on because of the barrier.”
Like Stokes, Tulleners avoids saying he’s witnessed a greater number of bad Idaho drivers. “I would use the term ‘aggressive’ drivers,” he says. “You call it what you want. But yeah, there are more aggressive drivers out there, because we’re stopping more of them. I’m personally seeing higher speeds and just bad driving habits in general.”
There’s also a national trend that has hit Idaho: deranged crotch-rocket dude.
“I’ve seen a huge increase with the reckless driving in the sport-bike community,” Tulleners says. “... It’s crazy. It’s like a video game to these guys.”
Sometimes, they try to evade police. “The problem is,” Tulleners says, “those guys run, they’re doing 140 away. You make one small mistake at that speed and it’s over. ... I was a young dumb male once myself, but to the level that we see in the last couple of years, it’s just been an interesting change.”
Racing — both cars and motorcycles — is another perilous pastime. Especially on the interstate.
“Every weekend,” Tulleners says. “We’ve got guys street racing. They’ll come to a stop on the interstate, which is also insanely stupid. You just stop on the interstate, and get hit by an 18-wheeler — he with the most lug nuts wins.”
“We get complaints over in Nampa. We get complaints out by Eisenman (Road). They move around.”
LAWS? A NUISANCE
Crummy Idaho drivers seem emboldened, if not entitled.
Why not run a red light? Traffic violations in Boise cost only $90. Why not fly down an Idaho interstate at warp speed? It’s a fixed fine of $155 for excessive speed — anything 16 mph or more over the limit.
Will penalties like that deter a trust funder driving a shiny new $50,000 vehicle?
And crashes are just nuisances to other drivers. They honk and holler at police. Do burnouts past the orange cones.
“We get people: ‘Get that mess cleaned up! It’s backed up!’ ” Tulleners says. “It’s like, ‘No kidding, bro.’ I was on a fatal crash one day, and some guy was complaining, ‘Why is this taking so long?’ It’s basically a crime scene.”
That often won’t stop people from being selfish.
“People don’t know there’s somebody trapped inside this car,” Stokes says. “Or waiting on an ambulance, or the car isn’t moveable because of the accident. But like I said ... the vast majority of people obey the law and are just trying to get safely to where they’re going.”
Our world has gotten faster. Ada County’s population grew 3.6 percent in 2018 to about 471,000 people, according to the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho. It grew 2.6 percent in 2017 and 1 percent in 2016.
As more dreadful drivers rev their engines, it feels as if fewer police officers are available to monitor them. On a typical weekend, Tulleners has three ISP troopers to work the Boise metro area. “Do the math,” he says.
Stokes, a 16-year veteran of the Meridian police force, laughs politely as he considers the Sisyphus-like challenge of trying to modify driver behavior.
He’s lived in the Boise area since 1989. He knows how Idahoans feel: It takes longer to get anywhere than it used to. It’s maddening for all of us.
“Our message to people, on all fronts, is just take a deep breath,” Stokes says. “Be aware of your surroundings. Give yourself more time to get places. If you can avoid traveling during rush hour — morning and afternoon — to get to a place, that’s probably better. ... Be patient. Be courteous. Wear your seat belt.”
Despite this rant of a column, try to keep a positive attitude? Be one of the good guys behind the wheel? Tulleners, an Idaho native, still sees plenty of conscientious Boise motorists, he says.
“There are a lot of good drivers. Unfortunately, you see the increase of bad ones, it makes it just look bad for everybody,” he says.
And remember the reason why Idaho is attracting more lousy drivers. Johnson is reminded of it each workday as he pedals through the beautiful City of Trees on a mountain bike.
“I would say, by and large, Boise is still one of the best places across the nation to be on a bike,” he says. “We still have a lot of good people. And I think the people that move here are still really good people. We’re not attracting a bad crowd by a long shot.”
Our crime rate is low. Our spirits are high.
Yeah, traffic sucks. But life is good.
“For people who have been here a long time, it seems like it’s getting worse and worse,” Johnson says. “But if you step back and compare it to a lot of the cities our size, we’re still doing really good. We’re slowly losing a way of life that people are used to, but by comparison, we’re still ahead of the game. And I know change is hard for everybody, and nobody wants it — including me.”
- MICHAEL DEEDS Idaho Statesman