The Sociology of Slug Lines

Slug lines never cease to amaze me. For the unacquainted, slug lines are a not-so-recent phenomenon in major cities like Washington, DC, in which those who wish to be driven to and from work hitch a ride with a driver who wishes to add occupants so that he or she can drive in the faster-moving High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes. If you’ve never driven in this city, just imagine what it would be like if your 15 mile highway commute took up to an hour, and that’s on a good day. The commuting time between DC and Northern Virginia can be cut in half – or more – for a driver who can legitimately navigate the HOV driving lanes. I’m sure other major cities have slug lines, too, but the DC slug lines are the ones I know best, so they are the ones I’ll talk about here.

The way it works is this: there are certain locations in the city – unmarked but well known to slugs and others – where commuters start lining up in the late afternoon to wait for an unknown driver to pick them up, onesies and twosies, and transport them to a final parking garage in some distant Northern Virginia town. I am neither a driver nor a slug, so I don’t have first-hand experience with this, but I have many friends who are regulars and who have enlightened me on all things slug. I don’t really wish to participate in a slug line, because I have no need to commute by car, but I am nonetheless fascinated by the sociology of slugs and drivers.

I regularly pass slug lines on my way to the bus or Metro, and each time I do, the slug line makes me smile. Slug lines give me hope and faith in humanity. They somehow remind me of simpler times – the days before stranger dangers overtook our sense of community and connectedness – when innocence allowed us to accept a ride without worrying about our own mortality. Remember hitch-hiking? In my opinion, slug lines are for hitch-hikers in suits. There is something wholesome and heartwarming about slug lines. If Norman Rockwell were still alive, I would think that the Washington slug line would be a perfect subject for an addition to his Saturday Evening Post collection.

Slugs and drivers have a symbiotic relationship. Drivers need slugs to get home quickly, and slugs need a driver to get back to old Virginia, so the relationship works. There is no money exchanged between driver and slug, as it remains the driver’s responsibility to pay for gas, but there are standards of etiquette well understood by those who embrace slug culture. No eating or drinking in the car, and definitely no smoking. No talking except to say thank you. This is a convenience, not the start of a brilliant relationship, although I’m told that the no talking rule is the one most commonly broken. No leaving a woman as the last person in a slug line. A man knows to either stay behind with the otherwise lone woman, or to allow her to take his place so that he remains the last man standing in line.  How chivalrous (gender bias is okay when it favors women, right?). No adjusting the driver’s radio, or air conditioning, and no….absolutely no….talking on cell phones. A call home to say “I’m on my way” is tolerated, but conversations are not. If only airline and train passengers would adhere to such rules of etiquette, although I must admit that I’ve met some fascinating people and enjoyed some wonderful conversations on airplanes.

What amazes me about slug lines, though, is not the ability of smart people in a busy city to organize such a win-win transportation program without the least bit of government intervention or assistance (shocking by today’s standards). No, what amazes me about slug lines is the willingness of people to either pick up or get in the car with a perfect stranger, twice each day, five times each week. You see, Washington is not necessarily known for its friendliness, or for that matter, its safety. We look over our shoulders, don’t walk with headphones after dark, and we even carry mace as long as we don’t go in and out of federal buildings. But each day, thousands of people line up to hitch a ride with a total stranger.

Every time I pass a slug line I hear my mother’s voice saying to never talk to a stranger and never go near their car. Do the mothers of slugs and drivers know what they are doing?

So what is it about slug lines that make people feel safe enough that they are willing to buckle in beside someone whose name and driving record they do not know? Why do people who don’t know their neighbors invite strangers into their car every morning and evening? Is this a sign that the traffic is so bad, it makes us lose our sensibilities? Or deep in every slug, is there some small glimmer of hope that human kind is genuinely good and that most people are honest and helpful? That is what I chose to believe. But maybe all of this means that in a city so crowded, we all just do whatever it takes to get by.

Surely some sociologist has studied slug line culture, but I haven’t found the study. Maybe I don’t subscribe to the right journals, but I guess I could eventually find something on Google. But for me, in a city that has its fair share of car jackings, kidnappings, robberies and murders, there is something so pure about slug lines that they give me great hope for the future and reaffirm my belief that most people do good things most of the time. So there you have it. On this day of celebration for so many – Good Friday, Passover, Happy Friday, etc. – I find my faith reaffirmed not by a service that took place in a house of worship, but instead by the line of people around the corner from my office who just know that their fellow man or woman will come show up to drive them home, safe and sound.



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