Bird's-eye view keeps drivers moving


June 21, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

Chuck Whitaker nervously boarded a two-seat helicopter for his first flight -- and then a mechanic promptly detached the aircraft's doors.

"It was a hot day, so the pilot wanted ventilation, but I was scared to death," the Baltimore native recalls.

He didn't chicken out. Twenty-five years ago this month, the audition tape he recorded for WFBR radio that afternoon landed him his first traffic reporting job. Today, the 44-year-old Bel Air resident is the dean of Baltimore traffic reporting. Many recognize his name from 11 years at WBAL from 1981 to 1992. His voice has been heard on virtually every radio and television station in town.

Mr. Whitaker commutes each weekday morning to the downtown studios of Metro Traffic Control from which he provides live traffic reports and serves as assistant director of operations. You can hear him on WJZ-TV (Channel 13) and on radio stations WCBM in Baltimore and WANN in Annapolis.

Q: How has Baltimore-area traffic reporting changed during your career?

A: Back in the old days, you never went outside the Beltway to check Owings Mills or Hunt Valley. Those places existed, but they were not bedroom communities like now.

Our route was the Beltway, which was four lanes, the Jones Falls Expressway and the one tunnel. No Key Bridge. No Fort McHenry. Rush-hour mostly occurred downtown.

Q: And where do you have to watch today?

A: We cover from downtown Baltimore to the Delaware state line to the Delaware Memorial Bridge to Easton and Cambridge, all of the Washington Beltway, including Northern Virginia. That's the normal area for us, because so many people live in Baltimore and commute to Washington.

Q: How else has the job changed?

A: The information network has gone from one or two calls back then to 25 calls to different sources now. There's much more information, and it's much more accurate.

Before, we could make one call to the state police and ask, 'Do you have any problems on the Beltway?' And they'd say, 'No,' and that was all we needed.

Q: What was the single worst traffic day in Baltimore?

A: It was a Christmas Eve about six years ago. We had a combination of freezing rain and just plain rain. You can imagine; that's a big travel day, anyway.

Both tunnels were closed because of accidents. All the traffic coming from the south had to get onto the Beltway, which backed up from Glen Burnie to Rosedale.

We figured at one point that it was 28 miles of nothing but stopped traffic.

Q: Have people become too dependent on interstates?

A: Absolutely. We tell people, "Hey, there's a big accident at Wilkens Avenue, and it's closed."

If I'm listening, or you're listening, we'll think, "I'm not going down there. It's closed." Why do we still get a 3-mile back-up?

People decide they're going to sit there because that's the only way they know. They won't get on a side street because they have no idea where it will take them.

Q: Why aren't traffic reports more timely?

A: It's very hard. We monitor police scanners, and you'll hear a call about an accident. In the five minutes for a dispatcher to get the call and then broadcast it, several things might have happened. It might have been minor, and they've already taken off, or it might only affect traffic in one direction, or there may be a big backup. We don't know until police arrive.

Q: Be honest, how useful are the airplanes?

A: It blends together with what we're doing on the ground.

I've flown, and I've worked in the studio. If there's an accident, it's very helpful to me to send an aircraft and say what lanes, what direction, how big is the backup. Otherwise, we're just guessing.

Q: Flying never bothered you?

A: Not really. One morning, I was up at 6:15 in the plane, and assoon as [Channel 13 anchor] Don Scott says, "Here's Chuck Whitaker," the engine cut off. The pilot was trying to start the engine, and I'm in the back seat doing my report: "Thanks Don, we'll make this a quick report because it could be my last one."

I did the whole thing in 30 seconds, and fortunately, the engine fired and we were OK.

Q: Some traffic jams are so predictable, couldn't you just use a recording: "Traffic's backing up on the west side of the Beltway this morning?"

A: Yes, the only things that change it are if it's sunny or cloudy, or if it's raining. If it's sunny, the backup will go to Liberty Road. If it's cloudy, it will move to Security Boulevard. If it rains, it will make it all the way back to I-795, as sure as the day is long.

Q: So how useful are traffic reports?

A: Everybody still needs to know the time, the weather and "am I looking at my normal delay or a half-hour more?"

If they hear Chuck say it's a normal delay, they know they can go to the 7-Eleven for coffee. If Chuck says it's raining and traffic's bad, they know to leave right away.

Q: How do you remember all the street names?

A: My first job out of high school was in the city's transit and traffic office. The police would send us lists of their worst intersections. You get to know them. Even now, when a new road opens up, I like to drive out there and see where it goes. It's helpful to know the detour routes.

Q: When Metro Traffic Control employees get together after hours, do they sit around and discuss the Beltway?

A: War stories come into play more than anything else. The funnier stuff we hear on the scanners. We compare notes on the worst accident we've heard about -- a 49-car accident on U.S. 29 or a cattle truck overturning on the Beltway.

Q: Are we going to hear another 25 years of Chuck Whitaker traffic reports?

A: God willing and as long as I can talk and get to work. I think I can do it. I love what I do.

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