Traffic signs relax a bit on weekends

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

February 15, 1993

If traffic jams on the weekend, is there anyone around to notice it?

That's the Philosophy 101 question presented recently to Intrepid Commuter, holder of a Ph.D. in Advanced Gridlock. We would mention the advanced degree more often, but no one takes seriously a commuter columnist who flaunts a doctorate.

The inquiry came from an anonymous (please, don't do that again) caller who wants to know if the electronic traffic control signs posted around the Baltimore Beltway operate on weekends.

The caller says he was caught in some pretty miserable traffic on Interstate 695 one weekend last month and was quite distressed that none of the signs warned him of an imminent backup.

"Nobody gave you any information," he says. "I got stuck."

Operated by the State Highway Administration, the signs are programmed by computer from any of several traffic operations centers in the Baltimore-Washington area. There are 25 signs altogether, not counting the portable roadside models.

Barry R. King, the agency's chief of traffic systems management, says the system does work weekends. But he admits that sometimes minor traffic problems don't get reported as readily on Saturdays and Sundays.

The problem, he says, is one of manpower. There are fewer people -- SHA employees, police and some regular commuters with cellular phones -- on the road to notice and report a traffic tie-up.

SHA officials said they hope to improve their ability to learn about traffic problems quickly. They also have some good news for motorists who rely on the overhead message signs: the electric boards are gradually being upgraded with fiber optics to make the letters more visible.

Try taking the flag out of human hands

The Intrepid Commuter's mail took on an international flair this week with a letter from Henry C. Weber.

The Baltimore resident visited the United Kingdom last year and noticed that traffic detours around road work were managed with transportable automatic signals, similar to traffic lights that can be lugged around.

"Our country's use of manual flaggers seems antiquated and wasteful," Mr. Weber writes.

Well, Mr. Weber, the next thing you'll be attacking elevator operators, doormen and the vice-presidency.

We grudgingly forwarded Mr. Weber's observation to Thomas Hicks, the State Highway Administration's traffic director. We were relieved to discover that he opposes dispensing with flagmen, whom he calls "usually the most intelligent workers on the job," a phrase we believe he intended as a compliment.

Mr. Hicks says the problem is that signal timing -- how long to allow traffic to flow in a certain direction -- is not a casual decision. A flagman can better judge the changing traffic situation.

Calling all commuters: How far will you go?

If you have the world's worst commute, Intrepid Commuter wants to hear from you.

Maybe you have to drive two hours, hop a train two states away, run 10 miles, ford a raging river and ride bareback from Olney. We want to hear your story, the more unpleasant details the better.

We have been studying statistics about how far and how long it takes Baltimore area commuters to get to and from work. We hope to have the results in a future column -- along with your horror stories.

Incidentally, we are bursting with pride to report that suggestions on how to improve Maryland's roads and transit systems keep rolling in as reliably as the tide, although without that salty odor.

A day seldom goes by that the Intrepid Commuter's office does not receive a letter or SunDial call from a fellow commuter with a good idea. The messages are usually from regular folks, the average working people who drive a car or ride public transit each day and just need a forum to express their concerns.

The lesson we have learned from these submissions is that you don't have to be an engineer, a planner, a politician or an academic to have a valid opinion. Your suggestions have gotten the rapt attention of policy-makers who quite often have promised to make changes, or at least look into a problem.

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