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Slugging 101

Many people slug or knows someone who does, but what exactly does it entail? How is it different than carpooling? Why are riders called “slugs?”

Fear not, commuters. We’ll fill your brain with so much slugging-related information you can use that all the useless stuff will fall out—multiplication tables, your wedding anniversary, the combination to your safe, etc.

What is slugging?

Slugging is a unique form of commuting during which motorists driving into the city stop to pick up strangers at designated stops so they can utilize the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes. It saves time and it’s free.

Since its inception in the 1970s, people have tried to introduced alternate terms such as “casual carpooling.” However, “slugging” has stuck.

How does it work?

Slugging is a self-organizing system with rules, etiquette, and predetermined locations for picking up and dropping off passengers. Our friends at Slug-LInes.com provides a compendium of rules and etiquette here.

A vehicle needing riders—“slugs”— to meet the HOV minimum (two or three occupants, depending on the highway) approaches designated locations known sluglines that are scattered across the Washington, D.C. region. The driver either holds up a sign with the destination or calls out the destination: “Pentagon,” “L’Enfant Plaza” or “Union Station.” The slugs first in line for that destination enter the car, confirm the destination, and the vehicle departs.

Stranger danger?

In more than four decades, there have only been a few reported violent crimes related to slugging. Observers have speculated that the three-occupant rule that has driven the need for slugging has likely discouraged most violent crimes.

Since you’re wondering…

In one of the more infamous slugging-related incidents in recent memory, the Sergeant Major of the Army—the driver of a slug ride—was convicted of hitting a slug with his car in October 2010; after the sergeant major drove more than 90 mph during the trip, the slug threatened to report him to police and was taking a picture of the license plate when he was hit. A judge sentenced him to a year in prison on charges of disorderly conduct and reckless driving, but suspended all but 10 days and gave him time served—adding up to a weekend in jail.

Did we mention it’s free?

Usually, no money is exchanged because both the driver and the slug benefits. The driver can use the HOV or Express Lanes and the passenger gets a ride. In unusual cases, slugs have offered to pay the driver for gas when the trip is particularly onerous, e.g., the drive takes an unusually long time due to traffic and detours.

No chit-chat, no excessive disruptions

During the drive, the driver and his slugs are in their own little world. There’s no need for chit-chat since the destinations and specific drop-off locations are understood for most sluglines. In cases where the drop-off point isn’t explicit ? for instance, slugs can be dropped off along the dozen streets that comprise the Crystal City area of Arlington ? the slug tells the driver where he wants to exit.

Why are riders called “slugs?”

Short answer: it used to be something bus drivers muttered under their breath. According to Slug-Lines.com, the term “slugs” referred to counterfeit coins bus drivers occasionally encountered on the job. Slugs occasionally appeared in a handful of coins and were an annoying part of the job.

In the early days of slugging, bus drivers regularly mistook slugs for would-be bus passengers. Grumpy bus drivers likened the riders to the counterfeit coin variety.

So there ya go—just enough information to be a danger to your fellow commuters in the sluglines. Like many things, it gets easier after the first time. Just find the right stop, get in line, hop into a car with empty seats and you’re on your way.

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