Beltway screens pull shade on headlight glare

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

November 23, 1992

The winter solstice approaches and as commuting seasons go, it's the least pleasant time to be on the road.

Ice, snow, wind and fog are bad enough, but we must also cope with the shortest days of the year. As a consequence, many commuters find themselves driving at least one trip a day in the dark.

That's what Detroit invented headlights for, of course. But as any veteran of the roads can tell you, headlights present some glaring problems -- specifically, the glare problem.

How often have you been temporarily blinded by the lights of an oncoming car? It can be a pretty scary encounter.

Well, there's good news on the glare front.

In the next few weeks, the State Highway Administration plans to install glare screens along the west side of the Baltimore Beltway from Wilkens Avenue to U.S. 40. Previous installations have produced remarkable results.

The screens are essentially a row of green or gray rectangles, 18 to 30 inches tall, six inches wide and spaced 15 inches apart. They are made of fiberglass and plastic, attached on a rail on top of a New Jersey barrier or median wall.

It's a simple concept. Concrete barriers are too short to block your view of the oncoming traffic. The screens reach up to eye level, which means that even the headlights of tractor-trailers aren't a problem.

They've been in use since 1984, but until recently they were used only at construction sites. Over the past year, they've sprung up in permanent locations -- at the Interstate 97 interchange with the Beltway and the service road leading to the toll plaza at the Bay Bridge.

Not only do they block glare, but they have also helped protect construction workers and kept traffic moving. Motorists aren't distracted by the sight of work crews, nor can they rubber-neck at accidents on the other side of the barrier.

There's enough room between the rectangles so that emergency equipment and hoses can still be run across the medians should there be an accident or fire.

"They have become a good congestion management tool," says Barry R. King, the SHA's traffic management chief. "Why should the outer loop of the Beltway slow down when there's an accident on the inner loop?"

The screens cost $12 to $20 a foot, and planners say they're a big aesthetic improvement over those bright orange fabric walls that are sometimes used for the same purpose.

Decimal system

Intrepid Commuter recently received a telephone message from a motorist with a deceptively simple question.

Why, the gentleman wanted to know, do Beltway signs warn us of approaching exits in quarter-mile increments when we're all driving vehicles with odometers that measure distances in tenths of a mile?

We forwarded this inquiry to SHA spokeswoman Liz Ziemski. She frowned a bit but came up with the answer.

It seems that engineers have found that motorists relate to the quarter-mile measure better than the tenth and that has long been the national standard. We don't tend to look at our odometer when informed of an exit ahead, we have a sense of how long a quarter-mile or half-mile is.

"All the research and feedback shows people relate better to that," Ms. Ziemski says. "People have enough to deal with. A decimal point can easily be misunderstood."

Intrepid Commuter leaves the concept at that point, since we still have two-tenths of a column to finish.

Anchor's away

Last August, we wrote a column about traffic reporters, and we must now report that one of the anchors who was featured in that column has been fired.

Jim Epperlein, a five-year veteran of Metro Traffic Control, was discharged on Friday. He reported traffic conditions for 13 Baltimore area radio stations, but was probably best known for his morning reports on Channel 13.

Tom Graye, Metro's director of operations, said there were several reasons for Mr. Epperlein's discharge, including inability to get along with co-workers and complaints from member stations.

Specifically, Mr. Graye said, at least one radio station griped about Mr. Epperlein's continued use of rhymes.

"This is broadcasting," Mr. Graye said. "People get fired for the strangest reasons."

Mr. Epperlein, 39, a Woodbine resident, said he was "shocked" by Mr. Graye's decision and skeptical about his reasoning. As Metro's highest paid anchor, Mr. Epperlein said, he suspects he was a victim of cost-cutting.

Metro Traffic Control bills itself as the largest provider of traffic information in the country. The company supplies television and radio stations with traffic news in exchange for commercial air time.

KEEP IN TOUCH

Write to the Intrepid Commuter, c/o The Baltimore Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore 21278. Please include your name and telephone number so we can reach you if we have any questions.

Or use your Touch-Tone phone to call Sundial, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at 783-1800, and enter Ext. 4305. Call 268-7736 in Anne Arundel County.

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