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Tuesday 28 October 2003

Traffic Suggestion

Here’s the scene at 11:30 a.m. yesterday on Interstate 66 in Fairfax, Virginia:

Police-induced traffic jam

It’s hard to see all this in the small picture above, so you might want to click on the photo to pop up a larger version.

There’s a red arrow pointing to a police car on the shoulder here, with its cop lights on. The lights didn’t show up in the photo. There’s a blue arrow pointing to a minivan off in the ditch, the reason the cop was there in the first place. There were no other people around, no signs of activity at all; just the cop in his car, and the empty minivan that had been driven into the ditch.

Traffic was moving at about 10 mph for five miles downstream from this in both directions, and perfectly clear, 60 mph flow afterwards. This wasn’t mentioned in the four or five traffic reports I heard on the radio while I was approaching and stuck in this mess, of course. Washington-area traffic reports are legendarily bad; I have, more than once, been sitting in traffic at a standstill across all lanes of interstate highways in Washington, and heard multiple traffic reports fail to say anything about it.

Anyway, so there we’ve got a total of ten miles of cars backed up In the rain. Thousands of cars, moving in fits and starts a few feet from one another, full of impatient drivers. It seems to me highly unlikely that whatever that cop was doing there was immediately vital enough to justify the increased risk of accidents — to say nothing of the time wasted by all those people in traffic — that resulted from his flashing-light act on the side of the road.

The Washington Post has a series (link goes to first article) this week on quick & dirty fixes for Washingtonia’s traffic problems. The theme is that things like building new bridges and interchanges is great, but that these things take ten years and billions of dollars; it’s worth looking at the low-hanging fruit, too. In Washington, the low-hanging fruit is almost totally ignored; the things the Post writes about are things like synchronizing traffic lights. Really. That counts as insightful here.

Anyway, in my experience, one of the simplest and most-fruitful quick fixes would be to get the damned police to start thinking about the consequences of their actions, to tell them that their look-at-me tactics will no longer fly. Were the police genuinely interested in traffic safety rather than in revenue generation and the intimidation of the public, they’d figure this out on their own.

I understand that the point of the police lights is to keep people from running into the cops when they’re on the side of the road, and I have no problem with that. The police don’t need to run the risk of being run over.

But if the goal here is to keep the police safe from possible collisions, it’s possible to make things a hell of a lot safer by simply getting them off the road entirely

The police need to stop making traffic stops in traffic lanes (I’ve seen this happen a number of times). If there’s no shoulder, the cop needs to tell the person he’s stopped to drive to a parking lot or a side street somewhere nearby. The risk that a right-turn-on-red violator will thus get away is much less than the risk of accidents and congestion because of blocked traffic lanes.

Even where there is a shoulder, for God’s sake you can generally get off the main road into a parking lot or something, and you probably should. There, you can turn off the lights and stop distracting drivers and drawing gawkers.

And, finally, when more than one police car is involved in a roadside event, there’s no need for them to all have their lights going, attracting attention. It’s not just a matter of there being more light; when you’ve got more than one of these things going in close proximity, and they’re operating out of phase with each other, they’re a hell of a lot more dazzling than the lights on a single car.

If it’s too dangerous for a police car to be sitting with its lights off within a few feet of another police car with its lights on, then it’s too dangerous for the people stopped for traffic violations to be sitting in their cars in a similar situation, and all traffic stops should cease immediately. I don’t think this is the case, though.

Obviously none of this applies when the cops are involved in some true emergency; but the truth is that very few of these situations meet the definition of an emergency. The legislatures and the police are all up in arms about ‘distracted driving’ of late, but to the best of my knowledge nobody has pointed out that creating a spectacle of flashing lights along the side of the road is more than a wee bit distracting. And while billions of dollars are being spent to try to ease the pain of traffic congestion, and everyone’s noticed that police activity on the side of the road invariably leads to miles-long traffic backups, nobody’s yet suggested that perhaps there’s a need for a change in police roadside procedures.

As the Post’s articles this week point out, there are a lot of cheap and easy solutions to some of our traffic problems. There are a lot more simple improvements that can be made, though, than the Post mentions; but the biggest challenge is actually getting people to take the problem seriously. We talk about there being a traffic ‘crisis’, but as yet there doesn’t seem to be any genuine recognition that the fact that traffic crawls along fully half the time is anything but an annoyance.

Posted by tino at 21:39 28.10.03
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I saw a traffic accident a couple weeks back that closed Rte 29 South completely and wasn’t mentioned for several hours.

Oh and the police instead of turning traffic arround at the nearest light to where the accident was just stood around and chatted.

I have noticed that WTOP (traffic and weather on the 8s) seems to alternate their traffic reports with one being about the north side of the DC Metro area and the other being the Southside.

Posted by: Paul M Johnson at October 29, 2003 08:39 AM

My two biggest comlaints relating to traffic accidents are:

  • For all the cops and their flashing lights, none of them can be bothered to try to direct traffic around the accident.

  • Where’s the damn wrecker? I once spent half an hour in a back-up caused by a diabled minivan in the left-hand lane of a four-lane road that had full shoulders in both directions. As I was finally driving past, no wrecker had arrived. The cop was just sitting in his car with his lights on. Why at the very least hadn’t the van been moved over to the shoulder so as to free up the blocked lane?

  • Posted by: RRP at October 29, 2003 05:52 PM

    They like to be seen while serving and protecting in hopes that the unmistakable police activity will deter one of us from breaking the law.

    Posted by: Nicole at October 29, 2003 07:53 PM