In the mad rush back from the beach -- when nearly 4,000 vehicles an hour jam onto highways built for half that many -- all it takes is a fender-bender and a couple of sun-baked tourists to turn the Bay Bridge into a five-mile clog.
In some cases, all it takes is a guy with a bright yellow truck and a few ounces of common sense to open it back up.
That is the job of the State Highway Administration's Emergency Traffic Patrol. Members cruise Maryland's summer-vacation artery like motorized angioplasty, opening clogged lanes.
"That's the hot spot right now," said Edward Buck, a veteran member of the patrol, as he learned that traffic at the troublesome junction of Route 404 and U.S. 50 was already backing up at 2 p.m. yesterday.
"We're headed there right now."
It was no surprise to Buck, who looks like a human traffic cone in his blaze-orange hat and shirt. He has spent some of the busiest summer weekends for nearly a quarter-century on patrol, keeping traffic moving.
Mary Dominguez of Fredericksburg, Va., was on her way home from four days at Ocean City, when her 11-year-old Honda Accord overheated.
The heat gauge "went all the way to hot, in the red zone," Dominguez said. "Then I saw the smoke coming, and I said, 'I better do something before it explodes on me.' "
She pulled over just before the light at Route 404 and U.S. 50, near Wye Mills, as her Honda spewed steam. Buck poured water into her superheated radiator until the heat gauge returned to normal.
Then he suggested she cut up to Route 309, past the bottleneck, before sending her on her way.
"Thank you so much," Dominguez said. "And you gave me a shortcut, too."
The state has spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years easing the trip back and forth to the beach.
State workers have replaced traffic lights, elevated highway crossings, demolished the westbound toll booths and built a new bridge over the Kent Narrows -- eliminating the vicious, mileslong backups at the old drawbridge there.
Technology has helped, too. From a laptop computer in his State Highway Administration van, traffic-light specialist Ed Rodenhizer can control 750 lights around the state, including the four or five vital ones for Eastern Shore vacationers approaching the Bay Bridge.
But no amount of government largess is enough to keep overheated vacationers from accidentally bashing into each other, then leaving their cars in a travel lane while they bicker and wait for state police to arrive.
That's where Buck's job begins.
Yesterday, his was one of five emergency patrol trucks and vans working the end of the three-day holiday weekend.
State officials expected nearly 100,000 motorists to cross the Bay Bridge -- about one-third more than on a typical summer weekend day.
On such heavy days, the potential trouble spots range from Easton to Annapolis.
According to Buck, state highway studies show that Baltimore-area vacationers generally go to Ocean City on U.S. 50, while Washingtonians generally take Route 404 to the Delaware resorts of Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach. The two traffic streams cross at the junction of those two highways, near Wye Mills.
Upon returning, they uncross on the other side of the Bay Bridge, where Route 2 and Interstate 97 peel off from U.S. 50.
The in-between area is where Buck and the rest of the Emergency Traffic Patrol spend their weekends, working to prevent the "accordion effect."
That happens when a trouble spot -- a fender-bender, traffic light or dancing chicken look-a-like tries to pull motorists in to a lunch joint -- collapses the tight traffic flow into a nasty backup.
But the Emergency Traffic Patrol also is a public-relations coup for the State Highway Administration.
A few minutes after Buck arrived at the junction of Route 404 and U.S. 50 yesterday, a three-car accident -- not serious -- managed to bring four cars to a dead stop in one of the two westbound travel lanes.
A two-car caravan from Cumberland was returning from Ocean City after nine days when Helen Boyer's Eagle Talon smashed into a red minivan, which had smashed into a gray sedan in front of it.
Boyer's daughter, Debbie Boyer-Kifer, following in her own Eagle Talon, didn't hit anybody. But she stopped in the road to check on her mother.
Buck, whose genial manner turns brusque when trying to untie knots in traffic, quickly directed all four vehicles into a nearby parking lot, where the drivers continued exchanging information and assigning blame.
"Thanks for stopping, buddy," said George Rummer, Boyer's boyfriend, as Buck pulled away.
"Your tax dollars at work," Buck replied.
Rummer added with a smile, "About time."
Pub Date: 7/07/97