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  Newspaper and Radio Stories
 In the Region's Commuting Battle, Many Choose to Slug It Out

By Katherine Shaver
Sunday, November 2, 2003; Page C04

Every morning and every evening, hundreds of commuters referred to as "slugs" line up for free rides from motorists they don't know who are seeking passengers so they, in turn, can use Northern Virginia's faster high-occupancy vehicle lanes. 

Sometimes, it's a scary, smelly or dirty ride.

Among the problems: sleepy drivers, eardrum-bursting radio volume and back seats covered with animal hair.

The number of problem drivers are minuscule compared with the vast majority who provide clean, comfortable rides, slugs say.

But as Lee Hargraves, 47, who slugs between his Burke home and his job as a sociologist near L'Enfant Plaza, put it: "I'm more likely to find bad drivers in my own family than I am among slug drivers. But, like anything in life, it's that one in 1,000 that sticks in your mind."

Stories of vehicles and drivers to avoid circulate among slugs waiting for rides. Some are even joining forces on a Web site to create a "do-not-ride-with" list.

"I, myself, can tolerate a free ride, so if these people made it on my list, then they must be really, really BAD," one slug wrote last October on the www.Slug-Lines.com message board when suggesting such a list.

Since that posting, dozens of fellow slugs have written in to voice complaints. Among them: space taken up by child safety seats, smelly cars, aggressive drivers and intolerable body odor.

The phenomenon of slugging, believed to be unique to the Washington area, has operated as a casual carpooling system for more than 30 years. Slugs travel to commuter parking lots in the outer suburbs and then line up for rides from motorists who need warm bodies to meet the three-person requirement of the faster HOV lanes.

Slugs regulate themselves according to an unwritten but strict code of conduct: Slugs don't speak unless the driver speaks first. The driver chooses the radio station and volume. Same goes for the air conditioning and heater. Slugs, however, may pass up any driver or vehicle of their choosing.

The privilege of bypassing a ride can come in handy, some say. 

Susan Buchanan, 28, of Spotsylvania said she remembered one ride home last winter with a couple who picked up her and her mother in Washington and blasted National Public Radio all the way into Northern Virginia -- and then refused to take them to the correct commuter lot in Stafford County. 

She and her mother had to walk along a busy road with no sidewalk and then cross six lanes of traffic to get to the right lot.

"I found out later [from other slugs] that that couple was notorious for telling people to be quiet and not talk because they wanted to listen to NPR," Buchanan said.

Out of the nine months that she slugged, Buchanan said, she came across four drivers whose rides she later took pains to pass up. These motorists included a man with whom she chatted just so he wouldn't fall asleep at the wheel; a woman who drove so erratically that Buchanan arrived at work badly nauseated; and a car with dried saliva from dog licks covering the back windows.

"You recognize a [problem] car and you step aside and say, 'Help yourself,' to the person behind you," Buchanan said. "Normally, people just want a ride home, but sometimes it's just too much."

Army Maj. Frank March, 36, who slugs between Potomac Mills and the Rosslyn Metro stop, said the relatively few tailgating drivers and hair-covered back seats are worth the time savings of the carpool lanes and the free ride.

Slugging is so convenient for both drivers and passengers, March said, that most people "go out of their way to be polite and do the right thing."

 

2003 The Washington Post Company

 

 
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