Clipboard in hand, Jack Jensen stood atop the South 72nd Street overpass in Tacoma and grappled with a Sisyphean task: recording the number of drivers who were following too closely on Interstate 5.
Each time he witnessed a dangerous distance between two cars during the morning rush, he made a tally mark on the paper. Blue marks soon were scribbled all over the page. He ran out of room to make marks in the box for the 7-7:15 a.m. period, so he was marking down transgressors well into the left margin of the sheet.
"There are almost too many to write down," the Bothell resident laughed. "There’s a real sense of community out there – everyone wants to be close to one another."
Jensen and nine other judges in the Drive Nice Day City Challenge assessed driving habits at busy intersections in Tacoma and Seattle during the morning rush Thursday. They tagged drivers for several judgment errors that can lead to auto wrecks: talking on a cell phone, not using a turn signal, not stopping for yellow and red lights and not wearing a seatbelt.
And apparently Seattle residents drive nicer. Judges penalized 10 percent of motorists there for their behavior behind the wheel. Sixteen percent of Tacoma’s drivers received negative marks.
Teams in Tacoma set up at the overpass and a few blocks away at the intersection of South 72nd and South Hosmer streets. Seattle teams set up at the intersection of Boren Avenue and Pike Street and Boren Avenue and Interstate 5.
The judges weighed the numbers of driving errors against the total number of cars through the intersection.
The $10,000 prize will go toward teen-driver education, said Lindsay Pease, the chair of the Northwest region of the Allstate Foundation, which donated the money.
"We ask, ‘What would happen if there were a day with no crashes, no wrecks?’ " said Fred Wright, the CEO of SWERVE Driver Training. "Everybody has the ability to impact what happens on the road. And it’s an attitudinal change that’s needed."
This is the second Drive Nice Day. Last year, teams holding signs were stationed near sites of pedestrian/automobile accident sites throughout King County. Families of the accident victims joined the demonstrators last year, which made the tone somber.
Thursday’s competition had a different feel, Wright said, because organizers relied on people’s competitive urges to encourage safer driving.
The ultimate goal is heightened driver awareness, and organizers chose to run the competition this week ahead of the Memorial Day weekend, traditionally one of the busiest and deadliest driving periods.
"Our goal is to make this a national day," Wright said. "There needs to be a culture of safety. We’re killing 44,000 people a year on our highways."
Several radio and TV stations interviewed Wright in the past few days, and many drivers seemed to recognize the judges, all of whom wore a green neon shirt. Motorists passing by honked their horns and waved.
One woman driving westbound on South 72nd Street rolled down her passenger-side window, slowed down, leaned over and yelled to the judges – even as cars behind her slowed down to avoid hitting her.
Her message: "I’m driving nice this morning!”