15 Oct 2003
Traffic reports and the weather dominate local news
bulletins in Washington, as they do in cities across the
globe. But commuters to the US capital city have an
unusual way to beat the jams come rain, sun or snow.
Demile Nguyen slugs to save time and dollars
As the sun begins to rise, the people start to
gather. Some have walked from home, others have taken a
bus or parked their car in a nearby lot.
To the uninitiated it seems they fall into line at a
random location, but these people know exactly what they
are doing and where they are going.
A car approaches, the driver winds down a window and
calls out "18th and M".
"18th and M, thank you," reply the first
two people in the queue before they climb into the car
and start another "slugging" trip.
Washington's slugging phenomenon began more than 30
years ago in response to the introduction of "High
Occupancy Vehicle" (HOV) lanes on the crowded main
roads leading from the suburbs to the city.
At certain times of day, cars must be carrying at least
three people to use the lanes. Casual car-pooling began
as solo drivers picked up passengers from bus stops,
offering to drive them into the city for free so they
could dodge the jams in the non-HOV lanes.
First come, first served, though slugs may
decline ride if they are uncertain of the
driver or so as not to leave a woman alone
in the queue
Drivers may "call out" if they see
a friend in the queue
No talking - unless initiated by driver
Slugs should not adjust heat or air
conditioning, open or close window or ask to
"Thank yous" should be said by
both parties at start and finish
No money is offered, requested or accepted
The story goes that the word "slug" - used
as both a noun and a verb - came not from the mollusc
but from bus drivers who had to determine if there were
genuine passengers at their stop or just people wanting
a free lift in the same way that they look out for fake
coins - or "slugs" - being thrown into the
In the intervening years, slugging has become so
organised that there is now a range of routes, each with
specific pick-up and drop-off points for both the
morning and the evening commute.
There are also accepted rules and etiquette for
drivers and passengers. It all seems to be smooth and
well run, even though it remains purely a user-driven
system with little or no official input.
New routes or stops are developed if there is the
demand by drivers and passengers, the use of the HOV
lanes eases congestion on the roads and there are fewer
vehicles generating pollution.
A spokesman for Fairfax County police - which
contains the Virginia suburbs where many slug routes
originate - said they had no experience of any crimes
associated with slugging.
Slugs have also set up their own websites with route
details as well as message forums to discuss issues or
possible new lines - which tend to start and finish near
bus or train stops to offer slugs an alternative if
there are no cars.
Unusually, drivers Nancy Sutton and Tom Lupo
have to wait for slugs
Both drivers and slugs on their way to work from
Springfield, Virginia, one morning recently told BBC
News Online they saw no disadvantages to their unusual
way of commuting.
"It saves time, it's very convenient and the
best part is it's free," said Edward Carniro as a
car stopped to whisk him away.
Demile Nguyen, who has been a slug for nine years,
said she saved $9 a day and her commute was cut from an
hour and 15 minutes to just 30 minutes to and from her
downtown law firm.
"In the summer it's a bit slow but when it rains
it's OK - more drivers stop," she said.
On this sunny but cool morning outside the
Springfield Plaza shopping centre, it seems to be a
slugs' market, with drivers queuing up for passengers
rather than the other way round.
Nancy Sutton said the addition of passengers allowing
her to use the HOV lanes slashed her driving time to the
Reagan Building, three blocks from the White House, to
just 18 minutes.
Thousands of slug rides take place each day
"I've been doing this for 16 years - it's like a
barter system that works for everyone."
The enthusiasm seemed justified on a slugger's ride
down the I-95 with sisters Dorothy and Shelia Lenoir.
Traffic in the others lanes had ground to a halt
while we were still cruising along at 65mph. Even when
some congestion slowed the HOV lanes, cars there were
still going far faster than those in the adjacent jam.
"So far it's working well," said Shelia,
who started picking up slugs in July. "It saves a
whole bunch of time."
News Online's unscientific experiment backed that
view. Even with hold-ups that the sisters described as
unusual, the slug ride took 40 minutes to the drop-off
just two blocks from the office - a journey which could
take up to two hours in the slow lanes.