Hard work can give us title for slow commute

March 01, 2004|By Kevin Cowherd

I'M SURE you find it as comforting as I do to know that commuters in the Free State, while sitting rush hour traffic and cursing and smacking the steering wheel, can now also thrust a fist into the air and cry: "We're No. 2!"

Yes, it's official: Maryland is now second only to the great state of New York in the amount of time it takes people to get to work.

According to the latest Census Bureau data, our average commute is 30 minutes, a few seconds less than New York's and well above the national average of 24 minutes, which should bring tears of pride to the eyes of every citizen.

In fact, I look for this new statistic to be incorporated into the various tourism campaigns we're always launching to lure suckers with money to our borders.

I envision bumper stickers with "Maryland: Land of Endless Exhaust Fumes!" or "Maryland: Come See Our Gridlock!" turning up everywhere.

Instead of slick vacation brochures featuring shots of blue herons and the Chesapeake Bay, how about using a satellite photo of I-95 at rush hour?

Why, I can even envision new license plates that play off this theme.

Instead of that goofy license plate with the farm motif, how about a stylized reproduction of the Fort McHenry Tunnel at 5 on a rainy afternoon, with taillights glowing as far as the eye can see?

Sure, all this traffic congestion might cause an uptick in road-rage cases, which may not play too well with people who actually live here.

But isn't being flipped off and run off the road by some lunatic in a Ford Excursion a small price to pay for a ranking as high as No. 2?

Sure, it is.

And if we play our cards right, maybe next year we'll take the top spot from those clowns in New York.

Of course, the fact that commutes have gotten longer and longer surprises absolutely no one who actually works for a living in this state.

In my own case, the drive from my home in northern Baltimore County to downtown Baltimore is always an adventure at rush hour.

To get to work, I'm forced to travel the traffic-choked ribbon of paved hell than runs from I-83 south (Harrisburg Expressway) to 695 west to 83 south (JFX).

Twenty years ago, the drive took 25 minutes.

Today, it usually takes 45 minutes. And that's only if an 18-wheeler spewing ammonia fumes hasn't slid off the road somewhere up ahead, in which case there's no telling how long it'll take.

Here's another thing: With commuters spending more time in their cars, they're doing more things behind the wheel that scare the hell out me.

They put on makeup. They shave with electric razors. They brush their teeth and rinse into little Fred Flintstone spit cups, which I have seen with my own eyes.

They eat elaborate meals: salads with creamy dressings, Chinese food and fried rice, burritos with cheese dripping from them, which they balance precariously in their laps or on the dashboard.

They type on their laptops in bumper-to-bumper traffic and check their Blackberrys for messages. They chat on their cell-phones endlessly.

And, because they're so preoccupied, they crash into other cars.

It is this crashing part that most concerns me, since one of my goals when I leave the house each morning is to have a crash-free day.

So far -- here comes the obligatory knock on wood -- I've been lucky in this regard, although there have been some interesting close calls.

One morning a few months ago, I was stopped at a traffic light in Towson and heard a horrible screeching of brakes behind me.

Looking in the rear-view mirror, I saw a green Toyota Camry skidding toward me. It stopped inches from my rear bumper. The driver rolled down her window and waved apologetically.

Then she pulled into the lane to my left, rolled down her passenger-side window and shouted: "Sorry, dropped the bagel, spilled the coffee!"

I waved back, a cheery wave intended to signal: "Sure, no problem, totally understand about the coffee, glad you didn't kill me!"

With drivers like that, we should be No. 1 in commute time real soon.

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