Blinders on the bridge

October 27, 2003

ONE OF Maryland's most ordinary yet sublime pleasures is slowly being taken away.

It's that brief but sensual moment of release that comes about a third of the way over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge from Annapolis to the Eastern Shore. Past the toll booths, at the end of a long, uphill climb, the bridge curves left, levels out and suddenly the huge expanse of the bay and shore beyond comes into view. Hit that point on Memorial Day weekend, and summer officially begins.

State transportation officials fear bridge drivers are enjoying that moment a bit too much. In their desperate quest to reduce congestion on the 50-year-old span, bridge authorities are trying to speed up traffic by blocking the glorious view.

That seems too great a price to pay, and probably an unnecessary one.

Traffic on the double span is increasing at a rate of 2 percent to 3 percent a year. At some point over the next two decades another bay crossing may be required. Until then, state officials are taking interim steps, such as lengthening the E-Z Pass toll lane into a long, exclusive corridor and using advertiser-paid toll periods to encourage drivers to cross outside peak hours.

From a three-year study of accident patterns, bridge officials have concluded that curve on the east-bound span may be another bottleneck in need of relief. Of the 38 or so accidents each year on that span, 55 percent occur there. They have also observed that drivers have a tendency to slow down at that point. Officials don't know for sure why. They believe the steep grade and the approaching curve both play a role, but they also suspect drivers are pausing a bit to take a gander at the view.

For the past three months, 96 feet of blinders have been positioned along the curve as part of an experiment to see how drivers would react. They don't know yet whether the blinders have made bridge crossings speedier or safer. But so far, no one has complained to the state about the obstruction of what Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan calls one of Maryland's "most treasured vistas."

But he should not mistake that for approval, and extend the blindered section further. It's a soulless plan that exacts a psychic cost far greater than any benefit it could yield. Fender-benders are caused by tailgaters. Don't shut the window on everyone else.

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