`Slugs' Join Fast Lane
By LIZ HALLORAN Courant Staff Writer
July 5 2002
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WASHINGTON -- Patricia Drake Scott stands in
the afternoon swelter of a "Code Red" heat alert
leaning off a curb to flash a sign that reads "610."
Behind her, a half-dozen other downtown
workers wait their turn to do the same in a ritual repeated
daily on dozens of street corners, in commuter lots and
outside government buildings.
Drake Scott and her fellow sign-holders are
known as "slugs" - they are lining up for free rides
Briefcase-carrying renegades, armed with
little but frugal natures, blind faith and the occasional sign
identifying the road or parking lot of their destination,
slugs are not by nature danger-seekers.
They just want to get home to the suburbs on
the cheap, and in time for dinner.
In an area where highways are choking with
commuter traffic that ranks among the worst in the nation,
that takes ingenuity - and a ride in the interstate fast
lanes, where a minimum three people to a car is the law.
For more than 20 years, thousands of
D.C.-area solo commuters have engaged in a semi-organized form
of hitchhiking designed to get them into the cars of solitary
drivers - and onto the high-occupancy vehicle lanes, where
commuting times may be cut by half during rush hours.
"It saves me an hour commute each
way," says Alan Dalton of suburban Stafford, Va., before
ducking into a car that had slowed on 14th Street to pick him
up from the front of the line. "It's fast, it's free and
it lets me live where I do."
And, adds Mayme Smith, in line behind
Dalton, it's much more flexible than traditional car-pooling,
allowing her to work late or leave early without
In a city not known for its problem-solving
efficiency, slugging has remained a grass-roots movement - a
significant commuting alternative unsanctioned and
unrecognized by the government and perpetuated largely through
word of mouth.
Sluggers coexist peacefully with police, who
only occasionally have ordered lines moved if the parade of
cars is interfering with bus or taxi traffic.
"It sounds crazy to hop in a car you
don't know," says Army Lt. Col. David LeBlanc, who
estimates he saved time and about $10 a day in public
transportation costs when he slugged while working at the
Pentagon, a slugging hub. "But, really, it's the common
man's solution to congestion."
He says the term "slug" was coined
when HOV lanes opened and people first started congregating at
a suburban bus stop to hitch rides with drivers. Public bus
drivers referred to them as "counterfeit commuters - like
fake coins," LeBlanc said, and, as the story goes, the
LeBlanc, who now is stationed in Atlanta,
has written a guide to slugging in D.C. and still maintains
the city's premiere Internet slugging site.
Sluggers who click on LeBlanc's
www.slug-lines.com can keep up on the latest news ("SIX
New Slug Lines Proposed"). They can debate issues on a
message board (Should FBI agents driving alone be allowed to
use the fast lanes?) and scroll the lost and found for
umbrellas, cellphones, organizers, raincoats and other worker
detritus left in strangers' cars.
There are suggestions for new slug lines,
and a review of the once-unwritten etiquette of slugging:
Sluggers don't speak unless spoken to; they don't talk about
money, sex, politics or other controversial topics; they don't
smoke, eat, use cellphones or request a favorite radio
They don't offer gas money, and there's no
door-to-door service. Those in the "610" slug line,
for example, are picked up and dropped off at a commuter lot
in Stafford, Va.
"The driver needs the slug as much as
the slug needs the driver," LeBlanc says.
The slugging solution is not unique to the
nation's capital - it's called "casual commuting" in
Oakland, and has been attempted with far less success in other
gridlocked cities. But, here, where drivers spend an estimated
84 hours a year stuck in traffic - the third-worst delays in
the nation - it thrives.
"Slugging is a product of HOV
lanes," said Elena Safirova, an urban transportation
expert who is researching the practice as part of a larger
study. It works in D.C., she says, because using the HOV lanes
requires three people a car, and the HOV lanes in suburban
Virginia are segregated from regular traffic lanes by Jersey
From the organization of the first slug line
in the parking lot of an old Bob's Big Boy restaurant in
suburban Virginia, the network has grown to 30 active slug
lines - 20 in the morning in the Virginia suburbs, 10 in the
city for rides home.
"The slugging population is very
diverse, and, amazingly, people say it's a very safe way to
commute," said Safirova, a fellow with Resources for the
Future, a social science research organization.
LeBlanc theorizes that the safety comes from
numbers - sluggers almost always ride with another slugger or
two, and they are encouraged not to leave female sluggers
alone on line.
"Having three in the car, there's a
comfort there," he said. "If someone feels somewhat
uneasy, they'll either pass on that ride, or ask to take
another person along."
Drake Scott says that sluggers also become
familiar with regular drivers - people they might see in the
grocery store, or at church - though she and others say
they're not aware of any romances blossoming on the slug
As she was talking, a Pontiac Bonneville
eased to the curb, and Drake Scott, who is just back to work
after a maternity leave, recognized the driver.
"It's Mary," she called out,
pointing to the driver. "Mary - I have baby pictures to
She and two other sluggers squeezed into the
car and off they roared over the 14th Street bridge and into
the fast lanes.
Copyright 2002, Hartford Courant