Caution, common sense can cut confusion in center turn lanes


June 13, 1994

When Holly Clark moved to Maryland from Southern California three years ago, nobody bothered to explain to her about center turn lanes.

You know what she's talking about. Those unobstructed lanes in the middle of a road that allow you to turn left from either direction.

The concept seems simple enough. When it's time to make a left turn, you ease into the lane and wait for a break in the oncoming traffic.

But nothing's as simple as it seems.

What about drivers coming from side streets who use the center lane as a stopping point on a left turn? Or drivers who use the center lane as a merge area to accelerate into traffic?

Here's a particularly unpleasant potential conflict: Cars moving in opposite directions on a thoroughfare could crash head-on in the center lane because their drivers decided to make left turns simultaneously.

"People are coming from various directions, sometimes at 90-degree angles to each other, and it's hard to say who has the right of way," said Ms. Clark, a Perry Hall resident. "I don't know if anybody else is confused, but I am."

Well, Intrepid Commuter isn't confused. At least we weren't until we contacted state officials to get a clarification of the law.

We could fill several columns detailing our discussions. There are too many different sets of circumstances to ponder.

Center turn lanes are a relatively recent creation -- the first in the Baltimore area (on Liberty Road) showed up in the early 1970s. They are typically created on highways with abundant entrances -- shopping centers, restaurants, driveways and so on -- where raised median left turn lanes are impractical.

Here's the basic rule: They're intended as an auxiliary lane, not a through lane.

Thus, it is legal to use them as an acceleration lane, but only for a reasonable distance. They are also a place to pause while crossing traffic if drivers can do so safely and not interfere with vehicles on the main road.

With all the possibilities, drivers should exercise care and use common sense.

Tom Hicks, head of the State Highway Administration's Office of Traffic and Safety, says the SHA doesn't install signs along center lanes because it's just not possible to explain the rules succinctly.

"It's simply best if the motorist uses good judgment," Mr. Hicks says. "We can't do the driving for him."

Repair of potholes deserves priority

When it comes to getting tough on bureaucrats, we must take a back seat to Hank Bitter.

The Dundalk resident pays tolls daily on the Francis Scott Key Bridge, and he's none too pleased with the condition of the off-ramp leading to Bethlehem Steel.

"I've noticed a large number of new vehicles proudly parked on the administration's parking lots," Mr. Bitter writes. "In view of the large holes in the road bed, especially on the ramp, isn't there some question of priority? Also, what becomes of the supposed-to-be 'used equipment?' Isn't there any control there?"

Inspired by Mr. Bitter's tough questioning, we called up the Maryland Transportation Authority and barked our orders to spokesman Tom Freburger in just four words:

"Get us answers. Fast."

Naturally, this caught Mr. Freburger completely off guard. (Next time, we promised to give him questions before demanding answers.)

Nevertheless -- after we explained the matter -- here's what he said: Crews are in the process of fixing those holes. Yes, there has been new equipment parked at the bridge. Most of the old vehicles are auctioned by the state.

The new equipment is destined for all seven Transportation Authority properties from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to the Harbor Tunnel Thruway. The Key Bridge happens to be the location of the agency's headquarters.

Records show that this year the Key Bridge is receiving $45,437 in replacement equipment: one pickup truck, eight snowplow blades, six weed trimmers and one marine radio. Meanwhile, the maintenance budget for the bridge is $825,970.

The entire equipment budget for the authority is $4.4 million. Maintenance costs are $33.9 million.

Mr. Freburger says crews have been patching for two weeks and should have temporary work done by the time you read this. Permanent concrete patches will be finished in two weeks.


* As a result of our May 2 column about the dangers posed by trucks parked overnight on the shoulder, Baltimore County's traffic division is banning parking along Franklin Boulevard between Interstate 795 and Cherry Valley Road.

* The $8 million reconstruction of Key Highway in Baltimore has begun. The project is expected to take two years.

* The West Cold Spring Metro station is getting a major face lift. Mass Transit Administration officials ask that Cold Spring customers consider using the Rogers Avenue station to avoid the heaviest construction.

* Favorite comment of the month: "Why do people run red lights? The main reason is the lights stay red too long," a Randallstown reader suggests.

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