Waging 'high-tech war on highways' by detecting detectors

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

October 03, 1994

Police are getting sneakier.

The newest weapon in the state police inventory is the radar detector detector, an ultra-sensitive microwave receiver. It can tell when someone is using a radar detector.

Radar detectors aren't banned from cars in Maryland, so most of us aren't affected by this piece of technology.

But trucks are a different story. In January, the federal government banned radar detectors from big rigs, buses and other vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds. When large vehicles speed, the consequences are severe.

"It's a high-tech war on the highways," says Lt. Bill Bernard, commander of special operations for the state police division dealing with trucks. "Radar detectors aren't passive. They put out a microwave signal of their own. The radar detector detector can detect that signal."

Across the state, troopers have been pulling over trucks with radar detectors since August. State police don't have authority to ticket offenders because Maryland hasn't yet adopted regulations to match the federal law.

But officers are doing the next best thing. They are conducting spot inspections of the trucks, checking for any violations from bald tires to hauling too heavy a load.

Because an average one in three trucks fails inspection, drivers have gotten the message not to risk using a radar detector.

"We support an aggressive position on radar detectors," says Walter C. Thompson, executive director of the Maryland Motor Truck Association. "Any truck on the road is subject to random inspections, so the police have the authority to do that."

State police own 30 of the detector detectors, which cost $1,300 apiece.

Bus driver behavior called into question

Ever felt egged on by a bus driver?

Intrepid Commuter recently spoke to a 54-year-old Annapolis resident who is crying fowl. She claims a Mass Transit Administration driver called her "no spring chicken" during a dispute on his bus.

Needless to say, her feathers were ruffled.

Without getting too involved in the circumstances of this particular squawk, we wondered about the social skills of bus drivers in general. Was this an isolated experience or just one in a flock?

Frankly, we have always found drivers in Baltimore to be courteous. Even our caller says she's been treated well in the past. But we know from unpleasant experience that some people in this world are etiquette-impaired. When the impolite choose careers of public service, that presents a problem. (Consider, for instance, Newt Gingrich).

So we presented the MTA with a question: What are you doing to take the rudeness out of bus travel?

As it happens, they have been working on this very issue.

Since 1991, the MTA has sponsored a "transit ambassador" program. It's a concept that began in Canada and has spun off to two dozen U.S. cities.

For three eight-hour days, bus drivers get a chance to hash out issues involving their customers. Mostly, they discuss passenger behavior -- from the driver and passenger point of view.

It supplements the basic training all new drivers receive. Rosemarie Homberg, the agency's acting training director, says eyes are often opened by the experience.

The classroom discussions are based on the observations of fellow bus drivers and feature videotaped interviews and role-playing.

"We talk about the special needs of passengers from the disabled to tourists," Ms. Homberg says. "A passenger tries to board with a snake around his neck. What do you do? Someone is drunk. How do you handle him?"

Driving a bus is a relatively simple thing. Handling passengers is not. One of the things drivers learn is how to deal with stress.

"They find out what works for others and what they can share," Ms. Homberg says. "We see this as a way to strengthen skills our operators already possess."

So far, about 600 of the MTA's 1,900 bus drivers have graduated from the program.

"The driver is out there every day alone," says Ronald L. Freeland, the MTA's director of transit operations. "We needed an organized, formalized way for them to share their experiences and find out what works when it comes to dealing with customers."

Mr. Freeland says it's out of the ordinary to receive more than one complaint a day about drivers. When he does hear of a problem, it's investigated promptly.

"Sometimes, we find there are customers who are out of the ordinary, too," he notes.

Camden Line to add four express trains

Rail commuters will soon find a faster ride on the Camden Line.

The Mass Transit Administration is adding four express trains to the Washington-Baltimore service with fewer intermediate stops. Instead of stopping at 10 stations, the trains will stop at three: Savage, Laurel and a station that is scheduled to open this fall. The Muirkirk Road station is about five miles south of the Laurel station.

The Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) system already runs express trains on the Penn Line. The new equipment has permitted the additional Camden trains.

Beginning Oct. 31, southbound trains will depart from Baltimore's Camden Station at 6 a.m. and 4:15 p.m. Northbound trains will leave Union Station in Washington at 8 a.m. and 5:35 p.m.

The express trains will cut 15 minutes off the normal travel time between Baltimore and Washington on the Camden Line, from one hour 10 minutes to 55 minutes.

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