For all those who have ever been stuck in their cars for hours inching around a rush-hour traffic accident, take heart: State officials are embarking on an ambitious, high-tech program to help you avoid such headaches.
The project's goal is simple: to detect traffic tie-ups, clear them as soon as possible and relay information about the resulting traffic jams to motorists quickly so that they can avoid them.
"We're talking about putting together a system that should last us for several decades," said Hal Kassoff, head of the State Highway Administration.
By late next year, the Highway Administration hopes to break ground on a statewide operations center that would coordinate all traffic information. The center, which would be located across from Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Route 176, is expected to cost about $7 million.
Mr. Kassoff said the federal government has already agreed to fully fund the facility; electronics and communications equipment account for about half its cost.
What planners envision reads a bit like science fiction: the center would serve as a computerized collection site for information about all the major thoroughfares in the state.
Sensors embedded in the roads, remote-controlled video cameras posted at critical intersections and other sources of current traffic news would be instantaneously processed.
The information would then be relayed to computers installed on cars and trucks. Essentially, drivers could ask their car computer for the best route between two points and a video display terminal would show the fastest way to go based on current traffic patterns.
Sound too good to be true? The $151 billion highway and transit legislation signed into law last week by President Bush included $660 million to help develop the necessary technology for
Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems or IVHS over the next six years.
Traffic experts believe it's just a matter of years before a standardized system is developed by the United States, Europe and Japan. Admittedly, such a complex system is years away, and officials are planning to use more conventional techniques to keep traffic moving when their new facility first opens sometime in 1994.
Since 1989, the State Highway Administration and Maryland State Police have been working together on a much more low-tech program to keep drivers better informed of traffic hazards.
The system is called CHART -- traffic planners have a fondness for acronyms -- or Chesapeake Highway Advisories Routing Traffic. Working together with police agencies and maintenance crews, a central office and three remote facilities collect traffic information by radio and dispatch equipment to accident sites to keep things moving.
Sometimes that means sending some of the state's 50 portable message signs to highway median strips in order to flash warnings to motorists headed toward accident sites. Or, it may be a matter of programming a message on the 20 low-power AM radio stations (530 KHz) to suggest an alternative route.
The system is based, in part, on the "Reach The Beach" campaign which helped relieve congestion along U.S. 50 while the state was making substantial improvements to the Eastern Shore highway.
Next year, the State Highway Administration and Montgomery County are investing in a traffic surveillance plane with an onboard video camera to broadcast live images of traffic during peak periods.
In addition, highway officials are trying to clear accidents more quickly. They may dispatch a state-owned tow truck or even a front-end loader to push trucks to the side of the road if the situation warrants.
"We've already reduced by one-third to one-half the time involved in incident clearance," Mr. Kassoff said. "Washington beltway tie-ups that used to last three to six hours now run one to three hours long."
Transportation experts said this new concentration on emergency traffic management was inevitable. New environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and limits on government spending will mean states can no longer simply build their way out of traffic jams.