Slugs speed district commute

Every weekday for the past two years, GW alum Jeffery Hatton has been doing exactly what his mother always warned him not to do when he was younger – accepting rides from complete strangers.

The International Monetary Fund employee is part of a growing number of District area professionals who proudly call themselves “slugs.” When slugging, drivers take advantage of high occupancy vehicle lanes by picking up passengers at designated pick up points on their way to or from work. The driver gets to use the lanes and the slug enjoys a free ride.

“I had been taking the bus everyday, which is $3.50 per trip, so it worked out to seven bucks a day,” said Hatton, a resident of Prince William County, Md. “Most of the slug lines are collated with bus stops, so I saw these people getting free rides, which were often quicker than the bus.”

Hatton and Krystal West, a technical specialist at Communications Workers of America, stand outside Mitchell Hall waiting for a ride home.

“My brother and I were carpooling, but we always picked up a slug,” West said. “Eventually, I stopped carpooling and started slugging. It would cost me $10 to $11 a day to drive myself. With (slugging), I don’t pay for anything,”

Slugging is not only a free ride home; it can also be a social outlet for those who commute in the HOV lanes.
“One women was really interested in talking about her sex life,” Hatton said. “Which wasn’t so bad because so was I.”

“I’ve been asked out on a date and I’ve been hit on,” said West, a resident of Stafford County, Va. She declined the offer, adding, “I have a boyfriend, so I don’t think he would have liked that.”

According to a 1999 Virginia Department of Travel study, 3,000 commuters slug to work in the morning and 2,000 slug home. The same study estimated that one quarter of all vehicles in HOV lanes south of the Pentagon during the morning commute have at least one slug in the vehicle.

“This is quite a significant figure, considering that they potentially are taking up to 3,000 cars off the road,” said Valerie Pardo, senior transportation engineer at the Transportation and Planning Section of the VDOT Northern Virginia District.

Slug lines form in specific areas, such as parking lots, where patrons form lines to be picked up by drivers. Slug lines are informal, but have been documented by Web sites such as www.slug-lines.com and slugvirginia.com.

Most slugs said they find the practice less stressful than trying to deal with rush hour traffic by themselves, and many said they sleep their way through the commute.

“You can sleep; you don’t have to drive or worry about getting hit. Just sit back and let someone else drive you to work,” West said.

Slug stations exist all over the D.C. area, and GW hosts a popular slug line outside Mitchell on 19th and F streets. The majority of the slugs and drivers outside Mitchell said they work for the IMF and World Bank.

In the early 1970s, the Shirley Highway in Virginia was rebuilt with extra lanes designated as HOV lanes. The practice of slugging originated when commuting drivers wanting to use this lane began to pick up passengers waiting at bus stops, according to slug-lines.com.

As HOV lanes became more prevalent in the Virginia Highway system, more commuters realized the great opportunity, and slugging grew in popularity. Virginia created several HOV lanes in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the market for slugging increased. Slugging got so popular that VDOT recognized it as a method akin to carpooling.

Despite similarities between slugging and carpooling, slugging differs from the more prevalent practice because no prior relationship between driver and slug exist. However, slugs said they eventually develop close relationships with some drivers.

“If you go the same time everyday, sometimes you’ll see the same people,” said West. “I went out with a couple (she met while slugging) for drinks the other night. Once you start seeing the same people, you talk and maybe hit it off.”

“It is random,” Hatton said. “Monday and Tuesday I caught rides with the same couple, but I might not see them for months.”

According to slug-lines.com, bus drivers developed the term “slug” after confusing slugs with passengers waiting for the bus, naming them after blank counterfeit coins.

Although riding in a stranger’s car every day might be frightening to some people, slugs seem to handle it with nonchalance.

“There’s nothing you can do about it. (Danger) can be anywhere,” Hatton said. “A man was thrown out of the Greyhound bus last week.”

“When I stand out there on a slug line, (safety) doesn’t bother me at all. When you get into a car, you don’t know the driver, but usually you know the person you are getting in with, so you feel safe and comfortable,” West said. “When you are on the (slug) line, you don’t think about it.”

Because the majority of the participants are government workers and business people, some slugs said there is a feeling of security.

“It is slightly more risky (than driving), because you are getting into other people’s cars, but you can see that most people are business people or government workers,” Hatton said.

There are many drivers who violate the slugging rules, or common sense, and are subsequently avoided by avid slugs.

“I’ve passed up rides with a woman who was screaming on her cell phone and (with) this one guy with his car hood duct-taped down,” Hatton said.

Although it is sometimes called “casual carpooling,” there are rules for slugging, established on various Web sites and followed by slugs and drivers. For instance, is up to drivers to initiate conversation, and no compensation is ever offered or accepted for the rides.

Slugging is not for everybody, but frequent sluggers said they enjoy it.

“(Slugging is) the most pleasurable commuting experience I’ve ever had. I’ve done vanpools (and) carpool, but with slugging, you are just not obligated. It is so flexible,” West said. “I’ll never go back to carpooling or driving myself.”

“(It’s) just a bunch of average folks doing what they can to go home.” Hatton said.

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