All over the road: A two-state comparison | A Yankee in Wonderland

Driving in Washington is different than Connecticut in so many ways.

Editor’s note: The column “A Yankee in Wonderland” normally publishes the first week of every month. The Courier-Herald mistakenly printed a different column in its place last week.

When you are new to a place like Western Washington, everyday sights can seem spectacular. Conversely, if you have lived here your whole life, the scenery seems normal. I was riding in the car on I-90 with my son-in-law when the snowcapped ridge of the Cascades came into view. I inhaled sharply and said, “Wow! Look at that!” He looked around for something unusual. “Look at what?” he asked. “The mountains!” I said, pointing ahead. He laughed quietly. “Those are always there, you know.”

It was one of the times when I realized that I was not a born and raised Washingtonian. It’s not a bad thing at all, to get excited by everyday scenes and events. Things like that easily outweigh the minor problems like getting used to new roads and traffic patterns. I was surprised to find a real traffic jam between Buckley and Enumclaw starting every afternoon — early! And I had to discover for myself that Friday traffic on I-5 South starts at 2 p.m. in the summer.

Our first months in Washington, back when we were looking for a home, were centered in Issaquah and Bellevue. Compared to rural Connecticut, it seemed that there were fewer pick-up trucks, and the ones that were around were quieter. When we moved to Enumclaw, the most popular vehicles looked to be pick-up trucks, even more popular than in my old hometown. Louder, too.

To further confirm these estimates, I filmed while I drove around to see what styles of cars were on the road. I’m not sure a professional statistician would agree with my method, but my (hopefully somewhat accurate) results surprised me: Trucks made up about 32% of vehicles, and cars were in third place at about 25%, but the SUV showed up as the most popular style, at 35%.

I was a little surprised to find that the percentage of registered motorcycles is about equal in the two states. It seems that the cold and snowy Connecticut winter is just about an equal deterrent to motorcycle riding as the wet Washington winter is.

Some driving habits are different here in Washington than back east. We noticed right away that people really drive fast on the two-lane highways, like State Route 410. If I drive at the speed limit (OK, I don’t usually) on the two-lane highway, cars will either zoom past me, or stack up in a line behind me. I was surprised though, that when the 65 m.p.h. drivers got on the divided highway, they still drove 65.

I’ve been driving for over 50 years, and I’ve driven in 45 states. It seems to me that Washingtonians are the worst at driving in the passing lane without having any intention of passing anyone. It seems like they get in the left lane and then use cruise control.

Also, surprisingly, Washington drivers don’t seem to be very good at following this rule: If you need your wipers, you also need your lights.

But overall, I give Washington drivers high marks for courtesy. We usually use our turn signals. We don’t cut in line. We don’t change lanes when there isn’t enough room. We usually let pedestrians cross at crosswalks. I’ve only had one driver give me the finger.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Washington has more driving fatalities per mile driven than either Connecticut or Massachusetts. And yet, according to Insurify, Massachusetts drivers are the most likely to have had accidents in their driving history. I guess they have lots of fender benders, but few major crashes.

DefensiveDriving.org rates Seattle as the 18th worst city to drive in. That’s nothing to be proud of, I guess, but the same survey places six New England cities in the worst 20 cities. Boston gets the worst rating. I guess my baseline for driving manners is probably set pretty low.

It’s nice to have so little snow to have to drive in. I was used to having much more snow. Usclimatedata.com says Enumclaw averages only 3 inches of snow each year. My old town averaged 59 inches. I tell friends and family in the Northeast that I now see snow as something I can drive to, rather than something I drive through.

Of course, in New England towns and cities, they also have the equipment to plow the roads and shovel the sidewalks. They also spread sand and salt on the roads. This makes the roads less slippery, but it also leads to filthy cars and pitted windshields.

I don’t miss that. That said, it is a surprise to me that when we do get snow here, that only the main roads get plowed, and most people don’t shovel their sidewalks. I used to think that an unshoveled walkway was an accident waiting to happen, with a lawsuit to follow.

On a recent visit to New England I had only driven a few miles when I realized something else I don’t miss — potholes; the constant thawing and freezing of snow makes it seems Connecticut roads are full of them.

It surprised me, then, to find out Washington actually has worse roads overall — Consumer Affairs rated this state as having the 11th worst road conditions in the country, whereas Connecticut was ranked No. 21. I can’t find anything on-line to verify my reasoning, but I think the bad rating is based on the rough surface of the highways, and that is caused by vehicles with chains in the winter. Using tire chains in the Northeast is very uncommon.

For me, the greatest thing about driving in Washington is the breathtaking scenery. The Federal Highway Administration has a National Scenic Byways Program, and Washington is well represented with eight routes earning recognition.

The Chinook Scenic Byway starts right here on Route 410. Although I love the outdoors and natural scenery, I also love to see the working forests and the quarries along the way as you follow the well-named White River. The real excitement starts after the turn to the White River entrance of the National Park. It’s worth pulling over to enjoy the first viewpoint of “The Mountain”, but the fun is just beginning. The hairpin turns, the sheer drop offs, the views of subalpine meadows and lakes, of distant peaks and valleys are stunning. My wife and I take turns driving through the pass, in order to reduce the driver’s temptation to sight see.

The forest changes as you reach into drier and drier territory, and the scenic byway ends alongside rock walls from the Columbia Plateau lava flows. During the COVID lockdown, we once continued from that point through the Yakima Canyon, and back home on Interstate 90, the Mountains to Sound Scenic Byway. The wide variety of stunning scenery amazed us.

Six other routes in Washington have also been designated as Scenic Byways, including routes through White Pass, Stevens Pass and Washington Pass. All of these provided me with jaw dropping scenery, but the rugged and wild character of Chinook Pass stands out.

There are two federally designated byways in my old stomping grounds as well. When I see them again, I’ll enjoy them as pretty, and nice, and interesting, and historic. But none of them will make my jaw drop. None of them will make me say wow.

When I drive toward Enumclaw from Cumberland, or along Warner Road, I look out across pastures and see Mount Rainier glowing white in the distance. I smile and think, “I’m lucky to live here.”