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Originally published Monday, May 5, 2014 at 8:02 PM

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City Twitter gag during bridge tie-up fails to amuse

Seattle’s Department of Transportation used an Internet meme to brand drivers stuck in traffic as “scumbags” on Twitter Monday.


Seattle Times transportation reporter

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@transitwonk How did Prop 1 work out for you? MORE
Um, the bridge is always backed up during morning rush hour, so maybe the people in charge deserve the hat. All the... MORE
the spd thinks they're pretty funny too. they and sdot both need to just grow up and do their job. MORE

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The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) pushed the bounds of humor in its Twitter feed Monday morning, depicting motorists as wearing a “scumbag hat” near the West Seattle Bridge.

Transportation staffers on Twitter were blaming a traffic jam on drivers SDOT says were “rubbernecking” to look at a crash just west of the bridge.

The “scumbag hat” is an oversized brown cap worn by a hapless Internet character named “Scumbag Steve.” Brown hats were pasted into a traffic-camera photo of cars stuck in the westside traffic jam.

Think of these hats as dunce caps for the 21st century.

The accompanying text said, “You get a scumbag hat ... everyone gets a scumbag hat! haha I’m mean #sorry.”

Joe Szilagyi, co-founder of the West Seattle Transportation Coalition, said of the tweet: “It doesn’t seem particularly professional.”

SDOT later tweeted that it apologizes if it offended anyone, and eventually the image was removed.

The city has tried to be more aggressive this year with social media, and funny messages spread faster, said spokesman Rick Sheridan.

“Our traffic-management center staff typically will use a humorous meme to highlight a problematic roadway situation,” he said. “Our intent is not to insult motorists, rather it’s just to call out where there’s a problem so people can make decisions about their trip.”

Minutes before the “scumbag hat” tweet, SDOT had tweeted the same photo with information about the traffic jam, as it did an hour before, also with a photo of the scene.

The brown cap has been deployed before in a few other situations, to flag foolish behavior on the highways.

However, it’s questionable whether the city’s premise Monday was even correct.

Monday’s traffic congestion stretched eastward onto the bridge, beyond the site of the wreck, SDOT’s own pictures showed. So there were likely other reasons for the delay besides gawking.

Bridge congestion tends to fan emotions in fast-growing West Seattle.

“Instead of insulting taxpayers and voters for trying to survive, SDOT and the heads of city government should be answering today why, for decades, West Seattle’s transportation issues were overlooked,” Szilagyi said.

On Dec. 2, motorists spun out near the bridge, which was temporarily closed, following an application of de-icer. SDOT initially blamed fast driving, then warm temperatures, until a follow-up review found that a city truck overapplied the chemical. Then Dec. 6, authorities took more than two hours to clear a noninjury crash from the adjoining Alaskan Way Viaduct.

On the other hand, the city improved roadway conditions in late 2012 by completing a $164 million expansion and strengthening of the Spokane Street Viaduct, east of the bridge.

Transit use has increased rapidly, and the state recently renewed its commitment to fund extra westside buses to downtown, through 2015.

A statement by Mayor Ed Murray’s spokesman, Jeff Reading, said offensive humor will not be repeated:

“It’s never acceptable for a city employee to ridicule members of the public. I understand the tweet in question was meant humorously, but many — myself included — took it quite differently,” Reading said.

Szilagyi said the episode will prompt some questions May 13, when the mayor’s transportation adviser, Andrew Glass Hastings, visits the coalition at its monthly meeting, at 6:30 p.m. in the High Point Neighborhood House.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom



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