Patrol rescues motorists in distress 'Captain Courtesy' rides traffic lanes in search of trouble.

June 22, 1992|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

By day he's a mechanic. By rush hour, he's Captain Courtesy.

But J.B. Webb is no ordinary superhero. Grateful motorists have been known to call him a "knight in shining armor." The thank-you notes he has collected over the years gush with praise.

Superman may leap tall buildings in a single bound, but rarely does he have jumper cables or a can of unleaded gasoline in the back of his truck. Captain Courtesy would never arrive so ill-prepared.

"I'm from the South. Everybody down there knows you're supposed to help each other out," said Mr. Webb, a native of La Follette, Tenn. "Besides, I enjoy helping people. It's a pleasure to do it."

Now a resident of Finksburg, Mr. Webb, 51, belongs to a little-known but highly appreciated band of State Highway Administration workers who cruise the Baltimore Beltway, looking for trouble.

They're the Emergency Traffic Patrol, and you're only likely to meet them if your car breaks down on I-695 between 6 a.m and 9 a.m. or 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Overheat, run out of gas, get involved in an accident and, chances are, they'll arrive in a hurry.

"I now believe in miracles," said Dr. Gary H. Cassel, a Towson eye doctor who was rescued by the patrol after a tire blew out on the Belair Road ramp last year. "It was no more than 10 minutes or maybe less than that. I was impressed."

The patrol was created three years ago by the State Highway Administration to keep traffic moving. There's no charge for the patrol's services.

"This has helped traffic flow immensely," said Lt. Charles D. Tyler, the liaison officer between the state police and the highway administration's traffic program. "These guys know what they're doing and they're good at it."

The patrol "operators," as the highway administration likes to call them, generally don't carry rank. Captain Courtesy is the exception. Mr. Webb's title was bestowed last year by his fellow mechanics at the Owings Mills shop.

A day with the captain is no leisurely walk in the park. By 3:30 p.m., it's time to shower and change after a grime-filled, eight-hour day of inspecting dump trucks and stripping down lawn mower engines.

By 4 p.m., it's time to hit the road in his tow truck, equipped with tools, an air tank, water, flares, traffic cones, a first-aid kit, a fire extinguisher, sand, blacktop patch, a shovel and six gallons of gasoline.

As this day's representative from the Owings Mills shop, Mr. Webb is responsible for the busy southwest portion of the Beltway, including I-95 as far south as Route 100. The Hereford Shop covers the northwest, Golden Ring the northeast and Glen Burnie the south. In case of a major accident, all four may arrive.

"The hardest part is watching eight lanes of traffic, the inner loop and the outer loop, at the same time and not missing anybody," Mr. Webb says.

The first two stops are routine, a broken radiator and a flat tire. His dispatcher warns him of a car fire along the steep Wilkins Avenue hill, but a search proves fruitless.

Someone with a car phone probably reported an overheated car as something more serious, he speculates.

The workload picks up when he comes across a disabled tractor-trailer on southbound I-95. A call to the driver's employer ensures that relief is on the way.

While Mr. Webb is working on that, a man runs across the highway seeking help for his disabled Honda (a broken fuel line is addressed; a gallon of gas will get the car to the nearest garage). Then an elderly couple pulls over to ask for directions to Waldorf.

"It gives you a thrill to help people who really need it," he says. "A lot of these people don't have the money for a big towing bill. All they need is a little help, like a jump start . . . and they can be on their way."

By the time he returns to the shop, Mr. Webb has put 109 miles on his truck. His fellow patrol members have covered similar ground.

The work is not exactly glamorous. The Baltimore crew averages 600 to 700 incidents a month, including such routine chores as removing dead animals and debris from the road, directing traffic at accident scenes and tagging abandoned vehicles.

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