Sun offers ray of hopelessness for squinting Beltway drivers

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

October 10, 1994

The world is a different place when you look at it through the squinty eyes of a harried rush-hour commuter.

Basically, it's a kind of blurry place.

This, we humbly postulate, is a major reason why the region's highways have suffered annoying traffic backups in recent weeks.

Blame it on the sun. With autumnal sunrises coming just before the peak of morning rush hour and sunsets coming just after the peak of the evening rush hour, these are the times that try men's -- and women's -- optic nerves.

"You hit commuters right in the eyes this time of year," says Tom Hicks, head of traffic and safety for the State Highway Administration. "There are so many major east-west roadways, it's pretty much unavoidable."

Ty Ford, a city resident, keeps a green plastic visor extender in his car to be ready for these moments. But more important, he keeps a rag in the trunk to keep his windshield clean.

"When the sun hits the windshield, the refraction makes it difficult to see through," he says. "Cleaning the windshield gets rid of 70 percent of your problem."

Neither the SHA nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration keeps track of glare's contributions to accidents. Experts don't believe it to be a major factor in highway safety.

But glare's effects on congestion are much more obvious. On heavily traveled routes, such as the Jones Falls Expressway or the Beltway's west side, you can see the difference on clear, bright days.

"At other times of the year, the normal backup [from the Interstate 95 area] on the west side of the Beltway might run to Security Boulevard or Interstate 70," says Charlie Weirauch III, a longtime traffic reporter and director of operations for Metro Networks.

"On bright fall days, the backup extends several miles more to the point where the entire west side of the Beltway is in gridlock from I-795 down."

Mr. Hicks agrees that the glare can significantly worsen Beltway traffic.

Trees planted along roads or SHA-installed sound barriers may occasionally shield motorists' eyes, but the assistance is inadvertent.

When the state built the Route 43 connection between the Beltway and I-95 in White Marsh, planners knew glare would be a problem. Workers installed sun shields -- black metal screens that act as foot-wide frames around traffic signals -- so back-lighting wouldn't obscure the signals.

But that is more the exception than the rule.

As you may recall from school, the sun's place in the sky is constantly changing. The sun may hit your eyes at a certain location today, but it may not be a problem at the same time of day next month or even next week.

Thus, there isn't much that government can do about glare. Motorists just need to be aware of the problem and take proper precautions.

"Government is innocent of this one," Mr. Hicks says. "It's an act of God."

Interstate 95 still awaits HOV

Late at night, a tired city sleeps. The wind whispers through the trees. A forlorn dog howls.

In an empty room miles away from that obnoxious mutt, a computer automatically answers a telephone call. Lights flicker. A machine whirs to life. Magnetic tape records the anguished plea of a man who has nowhere else to turn.

"When," our anxious Sundial caller asks, "is I-95 going HOV?"

The caller raises a valid question. Since I-95 north of Baltimore was widened from the Beltway to Route 24 two years ago, there have been signs warning that a lane in each direction is reserved for "future HOV."

For the uninitiated, HOV refers to "High Occupancy Vehicle," transportation-speak for a car with more than one person on board.

The first HOV lane in Maryland was introduced in Montgomery County last year. On portions of I-270, the driver must have at least one passenger to travel in the HOV lane. Other states operate HOV-3 lanes where you need enough people to play a hand of bridge (not counting the dummy) to ride.

We took the HOV question to Stephen L. Reich, executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority, the agency responsible for I-95 from the Beltway to the Delaware state line. He says there are no immediate plans to convert to HOV, but he expects it to happen eventually.

"When congestion reaches the point where HOV could give the car pooler or the bus customer a time advantage that's significant enough to get them out of their car, we'll put them to use," Mr. Reich says.

Complicating the decision is the fact that, even if I-95 were made HOV, car poolers would lose the special treatment at the Beltway. Neither I-695 nor the tunnel routes have HOV lanes, although the Beltway would likely get one when it is widened -- a project that is already being planned.

At the earliest, the move to HOV on I-95 could happen in two years. But first, Mr. Reich says, there would be an interim measure such as using the highway's shoulders as bus-only lanes.

There would also be some form of public hearing, and the authority would seek the advice of I-95 motorists, he says.

"Nobody can say they weren't warned about HOV," Mr. Reich says. "But they won't wake up one day with state police patrolling the shoulders and a new set of signs in place."

Short cuts

* Last week's column regarding the bus driver who allegedly argued with a passengers drew a noteworthy response. A petition signed by 26 regular passengers praising the driver as a "first-class, top of the line professional" was mailed to the Mass Transit Administration within days.

* Some readers have expressed doubt over the veracity of a recent column item on red right-turn arrows. We double-checked and the State Highway Administration stands by this rule: Whether you face a red light or a red arrow, the rules for right turn on red are the same. A right on red is permitted unless posted otherwise. The SHA's Tom Hicks says so, and we believe him.

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