RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And with no end in sight for rising gas prices, there's now extra incentive to carpool. In a few cities like Washington, D.C., cash-conscious commuters can pair up with lone drivers and turn the car into a high-occupancy vehicle. The passenger saves a few bucks while the vehicle zips by traffic in the HOV lanes. It's called slugging. NPR's Alix Spiegel has this report about the rare breed of commuter who's happy to called a slug.
ALIX SPIEGEL: A non-descript parking lot in suburban Virginia. By 7:00 a.m., the line of blue and grey business suits stretches down the sidewalk, men and women standing quietly, patiently waiting their turn.
As SUVs and station wagons pull to the curb, the driver announces his destination to the person at the head of the line - the caller, in slug parlance - who then relays that information to the sluggers behind.
Unidentified Man: Eighteen's in G-2. Twentieth and K-1.
SPIEGEL: Here's the deal. The driver needs an extra body or two to get into the high-occupancy lanes, and so they pick up the sluggers, who get a free ride into the city and a faster commute themselves. The system isn't overseen by any government. It's has evolved organically over the years, which doesn't mean that there are no rules. There are: No smoking or eating by driver or slug. Slugs may not adjust windows, talk on cell phones. There's no messing with the radio. These are some of the rules listed on Slug Lines Web site, but not all of them.
Kevin Ellison, a balding man with thick glasses and an ambitious smile, has been slugging for five years now. He's clearly a friendly personality. But despite his disposition, Ellison is always careful to observe another unofficial tenet of slugging etiquette.
Mr. KEVIN ELLISON: I have never told my name to anybody, and nobody's ever told me their name. It's not like at a cocktail party. It's I'm doing him a favor, he's doing me a favor. We're each glad that the other one is doing the other one a favor, but we don't give names.
SPIEGEL: Steve Brevick(ph), a Defense Department worker standing a few feet away, says the same thing. He's been slugging for 17 years.
Mr. STEVE BREVICK (Defense Department Worker): Very, very seldom. Very, very seldom.
SPIEGEL: How many names do you think you've exchanged in 17 years?
Mr. BREVICK: Half a dozen, maybe, at the most.
SPIEGEL: Five days a week, year after year, these men and women sit thigh to thigh with their suburban neighbors in a space no bigger than a closet for up to 60 minutes at a time - but no names. And Kevin Ellison says the chit-chat that does occur is highly regulated.
Mr. ELLISON: You avoid controversial subjects, avoid religion and politics and talk about neighborhood affairs.
SPIEGEL: In the sanctum of the station wagon, there are no sad stories of troubled children or financial ruin. There's no death, no divorce. And, says another slugger, Steve McCale, on the rare occasions when people stray into difficult territory, they're policed.
Mr. STEVE McCALE: It starts, and then people tend to stop it if it does get going. I mean, I've heard of incidents like that, that people talk about it. Like there was some lady talking about, you know, so-and-so politician in the car. She was out of, you know, out of line. So…
SPIEGEL: Despite these rules, people in San Francisco, in Pittsburgh, in Washington, stand in line by the hundreds. Why?
Mr. ELLISON: It's about a 50 to 60-minute trip with a slug. Without the slug, maybe an hour and 20 minutes.
SPIEGEL: Kevin Ellison says the high-occupancy lanes shave close to half an hour off his commute. Here in the Washington suburbs, that's typical, but not everyone in line is there to save time.
Mr. JUAN SANCHEZ: Well, actually, it doesn't save time.
SPIEGEL: Juan Sanchez has been slugging for about a year, even though it turns his 55-minute daily commute into a two-and-a-half-hour odyssey. He has to walk 25 minutes from the drop-off place in D.C., then catch a shuttle to his job as an accountant. But he does it anyway for one simple reason: He has a family, and commuting to D.C. costs a lot of money.
Mr. SANCHEZ: Fifteen, sixteen dollars a day, yeah, because my gasoline takes about $10 - right now, according to the prices right now, $10.
SPIEGEL: Sanchez, like most of the sluggers in line, does not find the slugging rules oppressive. On the contrary, it's a system that allows total strangers to tolerate each other for long periods of time in a very small enclosed environment.
Still, like every human endeavor, occasional departures from the norm are inevitable, and Kevin Ellison, the friendly man who hasn't shared his name in five years, says that his very best day of slugging was extremely atypical.
Mr. ELLISON: A young woman with a sports car picked up the three of us. It was in the middle of the summer. As we were leaving the District, it was very slow and hot, and she turned around and she told us: Okay it's hot now, but don't worry. Once we hit the road, I'll be going fast, and you'll cool off.
SPIEGEL: Sure enough, once she hit the highway, she floored it. Ellison remembers the exhilaration of speeding under the open sky.
Mr. ELLISON: The wind blowing on my face, I had to hold on to my eyeglasses to make sure they didn't blow off.
SPIEGEL: It was the first time, Ellison says, he had ever been in a speeding sports car, a radical departure from slug routine that, he says, he will never forget. Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: Read more rules of the road and take a video ride along with some Washington, D.C. slugs at our Web site: npr.org.
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