They're not insects and monsters-they're
commuters for whom the traditional car pool just doesn't
cut it anymore.
They call themselves "slugs" and "body
snatchers," but they aren't science fiction
They are bureaucrats who zip down highway express
lanes with different strangers almost every day. These
carpool rebels don't care about forming long-term
relationships. They refuse to drop everything to make
the evening car pool or to tailor their lives around
other people's schedules.
But they are still burning to dash down the express
So instead of exchanging intimate stories, telling
jokes and sharing donuts with colleagues on the drive to
work, body-snatchers scrounge around bus stops for
enough riders to qualify for the high-occupancy-vehicle
(HOV) lanes on urban expressways. Body snatchers are in
cahoots with slugs-the passengers they pick up. Slugs
don't think twice about hopping into a stranger's car.
That is, as long as they get a free ride.
Thousands of federal commuters in the Washington area
snatch bodies and slug into work every day. This
organized form of hitchhiking-a phenomenon grabbing hold
in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and other cities-may
replace the traditional car pool, which some commuters
see as too rigid to accommodate the changing schedules
of the American workforce.
"The traditional car pool has already changed
out of necessity," says Kathy French, an employee
of the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, who picks
up slugs on her way to work. "The slug line is a
direct result of needing to find a system that gives you
the flexibility that your working environment requires.
"It's a perfect system for us to use to get into
the city on time, or earlier if we need to, or to get
home on time," she adds. "We are not keeping
anyone waiting if we are working late, which for me is
usual. A car pool locks you in. The bus locks you in
with a schedule as well."
Casual carpooling has become so popular that some
transportation planners are analyzing its effect on
traffic flow. Others are looking for ways to improve the
system. But slugs and body snatchers warn experts to lay
off. They worry that government meddling could ruin a
well-organized, self-policing-and efficient system.
By the Wayside
In 1960, about 43 million workers commuted to
work by private vehicle. By 1990, this figure had risen
to more than 101 million-an increase of 35 percent over
The vast majority of these drivers go it alone.
According to the Transportation Department, car pools
accounted for just 13 percent of all journeys to work in
1990. Among 39 metropolitan areas, Washington, New
Orleans and Los Angeles had the highest shares of car
pool trips (more than 15 percent).
Many people who would like to carpool can't because
they don't work a traditional schedule.
French, for instance, thought she had "found
gold" when she convinced someone in her apartment
building to commute with her and her roommate. But the
new rider eventually skipped out of the deal because of
French's alternative work schedule.
"I work nine-hour days for five days a week and
have every other Friday off," she says. "I
love that day off and won't change it. But it negatively
impacted on the third person. She figured, why pay
one-third of the parking if she can't completely enjoy
Clarisse Abramidis, director of litigation support in
the Justice Department's Civil Division, gave up her car
pool because she couldn't just run off at the same time
every day. One day, Abramidis was briefing her boss on
an important matter when the clock struck 4:45 p.m. The
car pool beckoned, so Abramidis raced out the door, down
the elevator and across the parking lot-her boss running
alongside taking notes.
"He was a sweet boss," she says. But she
couldn't keep expecting him to conform to her car pool
schedule. Plus, now she has kids and needs her car for
pickups and drop-offs from day care and school.
Alternative work schedules make matching carpoolers
more difficult, acknowledges Nicholas Ramfos, chief of
alternative commuting programs for the Metropolitan
Washington Council of Governments. His office offers
commuting information and runs an online program
matching riders with car pools serving federal agencies
and private companies. Nearly 8,000 people are
registered for the service.
"There are a lot of changes in people's
lives," says Ramfos. "Now you have more
working spouses with day care responsibilities. You need
a car because you need to drop off at child care, or
elder care. You have a lot of different strains that
weren't there 10 years ago."
Ramfos thinks it's unrealistic to ask everybody to
carpool or to take public transportation to work every
day, but three days a week may be more manageable. The
Council of Governments' new Guaranteed Ride Home program
offers four free rides home a year in the event of an
emergency or unscheduled overtime to people who agree to
carpool, vanpool, ride the bus or train, bike or walk to
work at least three times a week.
Slugs and body snatchers qualify, too. But they
generally resist structured arrangements of any kind,
despite the inherently unpredictable nature of casual
According to 1993 report issued by RIDES Planning and
Research in San Francisco, people in casual car pools
"behave in a way which runs counter to normal
expectations. In general, people prefer to drive alone
rather than share their vehicle with others. In the case
of casual carpooling, both driver and passengers must
also overcome a natural distrust of strangers."
But the incentive to overcome distrust in this
setting is strong. So strong, in fact, that people from
all over the country are learning to be more trusting.
Slug lines are springing up in many traffic-clogged
cities with HOV lanes. "Casual carpooling thrives
where there is a reliable bus backup system," says
Lauretta Ruest, senior outreach specialist with the
Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission.
"If [people] have guaranteed backup they can
rely on to come back home, slug lines appear like magic.
HOV lanes go hand in hand with this. . . . Initially,
people stand there waiting for the bus, and the driver
thinks, 'I'm going to the same place, maybe I can get on
the HOV lane with two others.' "
The Rules of the Road
Nobody has yet written a book on slug or body
snatching etiquette, and the unwritten rules can be
difficult to decipher.
On French's first day snatching slugs, she waited in
her car until she was first in line. She said, "6th
and Pennsylvania." People looked at her, then
turned their attention to the cars behind her. She felt
foolish. "I thought, 'There has to be some sort of
criteria I don't know about,'" she says.
She found out there were slug lines for different
destinations. Word of mouth was the only way to find
French now has the system down cold. Between 7 and
7:15 a.m., she drives to a slug line in the parking lot
of a closed Hechinger's home-improvement store in her
Northern Virginia suburb. French waits her turn behind
other cars. When her car gets to the front of the line,
the next slug in line comes up to her window and asks
French where she is going. The slug then shouts the
destination to the others in line and gets in the car if
he or she wants to go in that direction. The next couple
of people in line headed in the same direction climb
Usually, French swipes someone within five to 10
On the way back, she rarely needs to pick up a
commuter, since she leaves the office after 6 p.m., when
HOV restrictions are lifted. But if French leaves work
earlier, she swings by a bus station near her
office-another known slug haunt-to lure riders going her
way. "Hechinger's, Lake Ridge," she shouts
from the rolled down window.
Some body snatchers are even more daring. Abramidis
searches indiscriminantly for bodies at bus stops.
Because the "official" slug lines are far from
her house, she just picks up people waiting for buses
heading toward the Pentagon. People have begun catching
on so recently a little slug line has begun to form off
to the side of the bus stop. "My thing is to beat
the bus," she says.
In the evenings, Aramidis parks at the Pentagon and
walks up to the bus lines to informally ask people if
they want a ride. Once in a while, she draws a dirty
look, she says, and two ladies in their 50s once refused
to respond to her offer even after she raised her voice.
"I felt offended," she says. "They
were probably nervous."
Abramidis almost got into a fight with a driver who
arrived at a bus stop after her, but hauled away the
first available rider. "I waited patiently for 10
minutes for someone to show up," she says. "A
car comes out of nowhere and grabs the lady and takes
her in his car. She went along; she had gotten a ride
with him before. But he was proprietary about her. I was
dumbfounded. He violated the rule."
Slugs aren't supposed to cut in line, either. When a
car pulls up and announces its destination, the first
person in line gets a shot at going, then the second and
Once the slugs have been snatched, etiquette rules
inside the car are pretty much up to the driver.
"Certain drivers will not talk," says one
federal lawyer. "Others won't shut up. You are
under their control; you are bumming a ride. Certain
people will tell drivers to change the radio station,
which I think is bold. They're bumming a ride and then
telling the driver what to do?"
Most body snatchers, though, enjoy the company of
After five years of snatching, Abramidis has met many
new people. Writers. Artists. Other government workers.
"I pick up people from all over the world,"
she says. "A musician who had made it out of
Russia; they booted him out. He didn't know about the
slug line, but he was with somebody at the Pentagon who
said, 'Come on.'" Abramidis says that as long as
there are express lanes, informal car pools will
Co-Opting Casual Car Pools
Not all transportation officials are crazy about
that prospect. Transit officials in the Bay Area-where
about 8,000 people slug into work from the suburbs-see
casual carpoolers as abusing transit facilities.
According to a 1993 report, sluggers are
"encroaching on bus stops" and using BART
parking spaces. Body snatchers are accused of stealing
riders away from mass transit and causing congestion at
On the other hand, some Washington area transit
planners are so enthusiastic about casual carpooling
that they're looking for ways to institutionalize the
system. A University of Virginia study, "A
Methodology for Analyzing the Casual Carpooling Market
for Interstate 495," considers increasing the
number of casual car pool matches through computerized
Slugs warn that the current, more freewheeling system
works just fine.
"Casual carpoolers are very independent and they
do their own thing," says Ruest. "They are
proud of the fact they could do this without government
intervention. Who is to say they shouldn't? This is a
free country. They are demonstrating their independence
and that's what the U.S. is built on."
Ruest says her goal is to increase the use of
multiple-occupant vehicles, "whether people
organize it or we organize people. We don't expect to
rule everyone with an iron fist. If our job is to get
people off the roads and out of single-occupant vehicles
and we can provide backup for them to accomplish this,
we are all in the same game."
French calls the slug system a "a commuter
underground network" that needs no government
intervention to help it run more smoothly. "This is
the perfect example of what creative things commuters
can do when they have to come up with a system to fit
their schedules. We probably don't need to change a
thing about it."
It will be a miracle if casual carpooling escapes
some type of regulation in Washington, a city that
thrives on government control. But this new breed of
carpoolers-brave enough to ride with total
strangers-probably will fight any attempted takeover.
In the meantime, slugs and body snatchers will
continue to cherish a system that lets them come and go
as they wish on the express lanes