An Open Letter to Slow-Witted Ottawa Drivers

November 25, 2013 10:17 am

by: Stéphane Tessier

Ottawa is my home. I live here by choice because there are more things that I like and fewer things that I dislike than any other place I have lived in or visited.

That being said, Ottawa is home to the worst drivers on earth!

My bone fides justifying this lamentation are strong. My trembling hands steered free from harm in the streets of the Moroccan Intifada, symbiotically merged onto the FDR expressway from the Lower East Side at midday, slalomed by debris on D.C.’s Beltway (teapots, I presume) and dodged a gunfight on the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago’s South Side. (I have no idea who Dan Ryan was, but I am certain he was shot driving there.)

There is form in your ineptitude. “We are cautious,” you protest as you read these words. You are wrong.


Ottawa drivers are slow, indecisive and operate heavy equipment as though addicted to analgesics. You drive insecurely the way a junior staffer struggles with the regulations pursuant to the Public Service Employment Act. This is why you slow down the day before a snowstorm or fit your cars with snow tires in August.

Levity aside, consider the speed limit. I mean, would you please consider driving at the speed   limit? You only live once, so get there already.

The left lane is the passing lane. This is not a euphemism; it is intended for faster drivers, by law. However, on the Queensway—never to be confused with the Speedway—the left lane is perpetually clogged up by clueless, passive-aggressive barriers like trans fats welling in the arteries of an American teenager. If you want to get anywhere fast on the Queensway, stay in the right lane. Too many times, my wife and I have breezed past traffic on the right side, technically in the wrong lane, with contempt painted on our faces because there is no other place to be. And we get the dirty looks.

Minivan! Grandma! You in the BMW! The reason the objects in your rear-view mirror appear so big is that you are so slow. Move over and get out of the way of faster traffic. The far right lane is always the right choice for you. You can knit in that lane. If you follow my advice, the red-faced gesticulating maniacs playing in your mirror will be gone for good.

I think the Queensway is haunted by the ghosts of donkeys who got run over by Lemonade trucks. There must be apparitions of some sort to cause those mysterious bottlenecks that paralyze traffic only to clear up and melt away for no other reason than there is clear road ahead. But there was clear road ahead before! How does this occur? No accident, no impediment (a refrigerator in the middle lane, like what you see in Detroit), no police activity.


Oh, but there is a policeman – on the other side of the road. And you jump on the brakes, don’t you? Folks, the nice policeman is busy fining a naughty driver going in the other direction so please keep up the pace for the sake of those following you.

Merging traffic causes bottlenecks too, because for Ottawa drivers, merging a car onto the Queensway is more difficult than parking a spaceship in orbit around the moon of another planet in another galaxy. What are you waiting for, an invitation? If only the passing lane were the merging lane, then circulation would be fluid at all hours of the day.

One of my favorite past-times is having a summertime drink in the Market observing your travails with parallel parking. If you could only see yourselves. Consternation shatters your confidence as you attempt the manoeuvre, especially if you are on a first date; panic when you realize you are out of position; confusion over distances, angles and the pleas of mercy from the senior citizen you have trapped between two vehicles; and the vapid self-loathing when, vanquished, you flee that precious real estate for a safer and more expensive option.

Watching you trying to fit your car in a parking spot reminds me of someone trying to put the wider end of a cork back in the bottle. In, out, in, out, wriggle-wriggle, and after three minutes of this nonsense, your vehicle is still parked diagonally, one tire on the yellow line and centimeters away from your neighbour’s car. Take care to notice that in Ottawa, everyone’s winter jacket is smeared with slushy grime. That is from having to writhe into or out of a car sandwich. An “I Scream” sandwich (chuckle, guffaw).

At red lights, why do you wait for the car ahead of you to move before you accelerate? If you collectively accelerate when the light turns green, traffic will flow better and many more cars will make it past the light. But you don’t. Why? Because, collectively, you are bad drivers.

Responsible driving involves being aware of your surroundings, not impeding the progress of others, being technically apt to execute basic manoeuvres, driving sober, avoiding reckless speeding and respecting pedestrians. I see little of that in our city.

Ottawa, apply some mettle to the pedal, please. Be resilient. Be happy.


Stéphane Tessier is a comic, iconoclastic essayist living in Ottawa who would ride the buses more often if he had a few hours to spare.

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  • RIGHT ON!!! Now may I add to this list?
    #1 drivers ….GET OFF YOUR #@!*!@!phone/texting/emailing and “whatever”! I’m tired and SCARED when I see you in the rearview mirror, waiting for you to wake up and ram into the backend of my car! Or waiting for you to move forward and stopping the flow of traffic!
    #2 drivers …. there’s a little under utilized gizmoe on the left hand side of the steering wheel…it’s called the “turning signal”! USE IT!!! I’m not a mind reader!
    #3 drivers …. pick a lane … any lane and stay in it! That’s what lines are for! Sheesh…driving outside of the lines is not kosher! And don’t give me that “what did I do?” look when I honk my horn at you! ALERT!!! ALERT!
    #4 drivers of BICYCLES!!! LIGHT UP LIKE A GD Christmas tree why don’t ya? I CAN’T SEE YOU!!!! AND THAT’S DANGEROUS!!!


  • Matt LaFrance

    You’re bang on! Ottawa is filled with terribly slow drivers. I’ve actually had somebody say to me that if they could, they would drive 40km/h everywhere. I replied with, “If you’re that uncomfortable driving, then you shouldn’t do it. Hell, you shouldn’t even have a license.

    If you’ve ever been driving in Toronto though, you’d probably say that city is worse than Ottawa. Lots of slow indecisive drivers in that city. At least they have a better transit system. I know what you mean by you’d take the bus if you had the time to spare. When I lived there, my choice was, ride the bus for 2 hours or drive for 30 minutes.

  • Ottawa? The worst?
    You’re serious? I have driven all around the world and Ottawa is way up there on the GOOD list.
    LA, Dubai, Shanghai, Bangkok, anywhere in any big city in Brazil, Joberg (signs saying DON”T slow down, carjacking zone)… the list goes on. Ottawa driving is bad? You don’t get out much, do you?

    • Though I completely agree with this article, your comment is even more accurate. I’m in Brazil (SP) at the moment and driving down here is a disaster. This is unlike the disaster in India and such where dangerous driving seems just flow better, down here’s is accident after accident and no one can merge. Every day it’s bumper-to-bumper on every street because people can’t merge and either cut someone off (hitting cars almost every time) or they don’t move at all and wait a few lights.

  • That negativity is going to kill you, either that or your obvious aggressive driving technique which stream from you inability to deal with others who are not as confident on the road. As an officer i’d be sooner to pull over the guy weaving in and out of traffic then the grandmother being cautious.

    • Yay! Lets have a race to the bottom! Come drive in Ontario, skill not required!

      • As always, the policing services in this province and city embarrass me.

        90% of all drivers involved in an accident from my observations were distracted, unfocused, impaired, fatigued, or not following speed limits, signs, and being overly cautious to the point were they were simply focusing on the wrong targets.

        I almost never see a focused driver respecting the rules of the road involved in a crash, or even a simple speeding ticket. All offensive drivers I know have clean driving records, and most importantly, are alive. I’ve seen too many problems on the roads in Ottawa to simply be a bystander. So if I see someone texting while driving, straddling lane markers, being slow to the point of being dangerous, I will do whatever it takes to pass them. Better for them to have an accident behind me, I want to live.

    • Since you state that you’re an officer (I assume police), I’d be curious to know what offence the guy “weaving in and out of traffic” is committing? It is not illegal to pass in the right lane, especially when one is forced to use it as the only free lane of traffic! What the author is stating is that drivers squat in the left lane. You ought to know that such “lane guardians” are committing two offences–not moving right since they are not passing, and they are further impeding the flow of traffic–an offence in and of itself.

      It is disheartening to read that an officer is on the side of someone committing offenses out of some provincial backwater notion that because it’s “slow” it’s somehow safe, probably with a bit of down-home quaintness thrown in (maybe we should give up cars and use horse-drawn buggies). It is totally illegal and unsafe to impede the flow of traffic. I expect our police officers to uphold the law and at the very least pull over and warn these motorists that they’re breaking the law. Most of the time they aren’t the sweet grandmother types but some uptight wannabe cop who is blocking the left lane of traffic to prove some point in a misguided effort to make their own empty shells of lives more meaningful. Ok perhaps that’s overkill, but these people are dangerous and their actions are the direct cause of road rage.

  • My favourite Ottawa trick is the people in the right lane who are five car lengths back, see you signal to switch into the right lane, and step on the pedal to close the gap. Ottawa is not bad for being full of idiots, it’s bad because the idiots it has are amazingly inconsistent, which means you never, ever know what people are going to do. Montreal may have “worse” drivers, but at least everyone knows what to expect. Here it’s just a random traffic generator.

    • I think this is the real issue. And you have to compensate for this inconsistency by doing off things yourself. We’ve got a roundabout in Orleans that I’ve had to misuse because of the pure chaos I see and expect around me, which is a true shame.

  • My favorite Ottawa driving technique is what I call “The Ottawa Crawl” lead car at a red light slowly starts creeping into the intersection in anticipation of the green light, almost to the point of being all the way through the intersection,then,when the light turns green they freeze up and DON’T accelerate. Like they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar.I’ve driven all over North America, Ottawa is unique in my experience.

  • GET OFF THE ROAD YOU BUNCH OF DUMB DRIVERS. YOu are the reason why there are so many accidents. LEFT LANE IS FOR PASSING IDIOTS.. GET OFF THE /”$!/!”|/ road.

  • I agree with a lot in this article but there are a few things that need to be said. While the queens way is rated at 100km/hr Max speed, there is no reason for anyone to be traveling at the rate of 120km/hr +. Let’s try to keep it anywhere between those 2 limits. This goes for any speed limit, in residential I see people going 70 in a 50?!? Keep it between 50 and 60! This is especially bad on the ottawa river parkway where the speed limit is 60km/h, I see people going 80km/h or more , most are from Quebec mind you. I just don’t understand thesee people, they have no respect for the law or the safety of others. Oh and you know on the queens way when they are doing construction and the speed limit drops down to 80km/h from 100km/hr, this means slow down! I see people that just ignore and continue going 120km/h in an 80km/h zone! No wonder car insurance is so high, people need to learn to drive more responsibly and safety.

    • Yeah it’s totally not cause we have antiquated speeding restrictions or anything. /sarcasm

      While speeding in residential zones is a big no no, the queensway speedlimit could easily be upped to 120km/h or more, as it is in MANY other places, with no impact on safety.

    • I agree to some degree about the issue of speeding in construction zones. It should definitely be a NO if our construction zones were setup correctly. Instead, we have this awesome system where they just drop 18KM of highway to 80, which is in force for weeks, months, or even years, while large parts of the segment are just normal road. Obviously, over time, drivers have come to terms with this system, so they frankly just ignore the speed reduction. A better system would be one that limited the speed reduction to the current zone of work, and since the primary goal is worker safety, a system of flashing lights, etc, that would indicate workers are present . (With an accompanying increase in fines during this period.) We live in the 21st century, with amazing advances to technology, but our roadway construction system is still based on throwing up static signs and leaving them in place for six months. No wonder people are prone to ignore them, if they seem pointless.

      Finally, I agree with most of what this article discusses, and although I am strongly in agreement for increased speed limits on highways and other similar roads, I am strongly against speeding in residential areas. If it’s 4pm on a school day, slow down when going in front of the school. And to all the soccer Moms (or Dads) in their minivans out there, stop tailing me when I’m driving slowly in residential areas. It’s your kid I’m trying not to hit or kill. This happens to me everyday and drives me nuts.

  • I think the issue around bottlenecks is certainly true. I live in Orleans and on the odd occasion I am driving into Ottawa during “rush” hour I am dumbfounded. It is not an issue of volume, because – as you say, you get stuck in a standstill only to find it clear ahead. I think it has more to do with not knowing whatsoever how to merge at speed and driver’s not leaving space when things slow down between cars so that lanes can exchange traffic (a major issue at the 416 split westbound). This is a shame because it doesn’t have to be this way and it could be so much better without needing additional lanes or capacity.

  • How about stopping at yield signs, like at the ever increasing number of rotaries.

    I just moved Ottawa from Montreal and I have to say that this article is spot on. It’s like moving to timidland. And, no, it’s not about being cautious. It’s about being nervous and putting everyone around you in danger because you don’t know what you’re doing or don’t have enough self-confidence behind the wheel without wetting yourself.

  • It is heartening to read these comments as an Ottawa transplant. Other inconsistent and illegal driving behaviour I’ve observed as someone who has lived around North America and driven throughout the world:

    1) About 50% of drivers refuse to pull into the intersection to make a left turn on a green signal with oncoming traffic. I’ve never seen this in any other city. Often they’ll sit through a light cycle completely unnecessarily (and rudely to other motorists). No one honks.

    2) Slowing down to a snail’s pace on curves or bends in the road. Why?

    3) Speeding recklessly through neighbourhoods (the same losers who inexplicably crawled around a bend in the road now don’t mind risking hitting kids or pets).

    4) Talking on cell-phone handsets. I feel like I just time warped to the 90s when I see this–all day long.

    5) Excruciatingly slow starts at left turn lights. Five cars get through when it was designed for double that.

    6) Stopping at yield signs (I think someone else covered this one above).

    7) Speeding in 40kph zones while unable to keep up the speed on the Queensway. It’s as though Ottawans believe their cars only go one speed.

  • Worst drivers on the planet I don’t understand how half these people get their licenses. Same idiots with stick family stickers on their windows plugged into their phones driving with their kids are calling on me for “Reckless driving”…..uh no how about you get a move on and stop going 30 in a 60 kph zone….I have been cut off I can’t count how many times and if I had not been overly defensive and had to think for myself and the idiots driving I would have been dead on over 3 occasions…..yet I’m 22 and my insurance is highest because I’m a risk right? Well how come 80 percent of the terrible driving is for people between 30 and 60? Makes lots of sense maybe we should enforce laws on dumb driving and everyone who can’t drive should stick to a bus or a bike because people on the road are gonna kill someone driving like this and we should be worried about this not people who are driving 20 km over speed limit or stunt driving driving 160 on an empty highway with no cars around them EH? I live half a km from school and had to use my horn 8 times no further comment…

  • It’s a bit sad that so many people see so much of the same, and from all different driving habits and from all different areas of the city. It’s crazy to me that it’s culturally so widespread, yet nobody can figure out where it’s coming from.

    A study recently in Chicago demonstrated that it only takes 2% of secondary roads being blocked by too-slow traffic to plug the entire roadway. And Ottawa has much more than 2% of slow drivers. In fact, I can’t recall a time (or time of day) on the 417 where I didn’t have to pass someone doing 70-75? There are service and back roads: why are you using the highway? That makes no sense.

    I don’t agree with the 160 stunt driving, mind you, as I think that’s kind of ridiculous too. There are tracks for that. Or video games. But the point is well-made: there is a difference between calling it the “speed limit” and what it actually is, which is the “safe driving speed”. Speed rarely causes accidents. Excessively aggressive drivers, excessively insecure drivers and the difference in traffic speed they create are accident generators I think.

    And someone said it really well: if you aren’t comfortable driving with traffic, you just shouldn’t drive. Period. No excuses. Learn how, get comfortable or get familiar with OCT. We’ve all made driving mistakes. It happens. But when mistakes are your regular driving pattern… please just take a moment to consider that you may actually not be as good a driver as you think. I’m sure I am not great, but knowing that helps me pay attention and improve. Remember, 80% of drivers consider themselves to be above average: a statistical impossibility. Our collective confidence vastly outweighs our skill.

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