Drive too close and bear the risk


October 29, 2007|By MICHAEL DRESSER

The Fort McHenry Tunnel is a magnificent engineering achievement. It's the widest underwater tunnel in the world, and it carries more than 115,000 vehicles around Baltimore each day with admirable efficiency.

And it's a stupid place to tailgate.

Actually, there are no intelligent places to tailgate, but a busy tunnel is a particularly obnoxious place in which to attach yourself to the preceding vehicle's bumper. The same goes for other key transportation facilities such as the Harbor Tunnel, the Key Bridge and the Bay Bridge.

This rant is prompted by a recent harbor crossing in which some spatially challenged individual followed my small car almost the entire distance of the McHenry tunnel about two car lengths from my rear bumper.

It was disconcerting - but not the worst I've had in the tunnel. The depth was reached when a tractor-trailer driver closed to what seemed like a distance of about 2 feet and camped out there all the way to the toll plaza. That was one of the many occasions I wish could have persuaded James Bond's friend Q to equip the rear of my Hyundai Elantra with one of those heat-seeking missile launchers that 007 puts to such worthy use.

On the open highway, tailgaters can self-justify their discourtesy by reasoning that they are trying to persuade a slowpoke to move over. But in the tunnel, one is not permitted to change lanes, so even that lame excuse fails.

Now I'll admit part of the problem may be myself. I happen to find long bridges and tunnels to be good places to drive right at the speed limit. It's something about the close quarters, the lack of shoulders and the potentially dire consequences of indulging in a collision that makes 55 mph seem prudent - even after keeping up with the flow of traffic on the approach.

(Those potentially dire consequences include delaying you for a couple of hours, if I should mess up in the tunnel just as you are entering it.)

Those experiences of tunnel-gating brought to mind some recent articles about approaches taken in other states and countries to enforcing the laws against driving too closely.

Last year, Oregon police began using a modified laser gun system that can track trailing distance as well as speed. The technology - known as lidar and manufactured by Laser Technology Inc. of Colorado - has since been borrowed by the state of Arizona, where officers say tailgating is a factor in more than half that state's collisions.

It costs only about $600 to $700 to make the modification - a small modification that could pay for itself many times over in traffic tickets served upon the most obnoxious class of drivers.

Police have been delighted with the system because it allows them to go in front of a judge with scientific data showing that Joe Leadfoot was 15 feet from the rear of Betty Boring's car while traveling 65 mph. A scientific readout is much harder to dismiss than an officer's subjective judgment.

Maryland can't adopt this technology too soon. There are plenty of district judges here who like nothing better than to disregard police testimony and demand an unreasonable level of certainty in traffic cases.

There would be no better venue to pioneer this technology than in the tunnels and on the bridges operated by the Maryland Transportation Authority.

Right now there are plenty of cameras in and on the authority's toll facilities. They're used to monitor traffic flow and to prevent terrorist activity. But the authority doesn't use its cameras to enforce traffic laws. It has never made a serious effort to persuade the General Assembly to give it the green light to do so.

To me, this is a dereliction of the authority's duty to protect the state's most important assets. We have seen in multiple incidents this year in California how traffic crashes can close important traffic corridors for days or weeks at a time. Do we need to have it happen in our backyard before we take the threat seriously? I'd wager that our infrastructure is under a greater threat from lane-changing, tailgating, speed-loving, aggressive-driving, booze-soaked red-blooded Americans than they are from terrorists.

So let me modestly suggest that the authority, whose board has had an infusion of new members who are not stuck in the past, go to the legislature and ask for the power to install cameras to enforce speed limits, lane-changing rules and - dearest to my heart - tailgating regulations.

Furthermore, it would do no harm to suggest to our lawmakers that they double, treble or even quadruple fines for any traffic offenses that take place at toll tunnels and bridges. It would be a modest way of telling folks that these are places where we demand that all drivers remain on their best behavior in order to maintain the flow for all of us.

Perhaps I've been a little intemperate on the subject of tailgating. Certainly there is a substantial minority of Marylanders - at least one of whom sports a "Choose Civility" bumper sticker - who indulge in the practice. If any of them can explain the logic of such driving, please send e-mail to: gettingthere@balt

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