D.C.’s Type-A driving culture makes reader long for City of Angels

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I almost wrote this last summer after spending a few days in Los Angeles, and now that I’m back from a week in that city, I decided to: Why can’t we Washington-area folks drive more like Los Angelenos?

The main habits are allowing fellow drivers to merge, always signaling for a merge or turn, rarely tailgating, and carefully stopping for pedestrians and bicycles. I experienced all these things last year and again this year. As a result, I find driving in Los Angeles, with the endless freeways, to be stress-free and nearly a pleasure. (Who likes freeways, though?)

I sense that drivers there are watching out for each other in a way that almost seems the opposite of how we drive. Here, it seems to be all about getting ahead of the next guy. Maybe we’re just too Type A in general. (I plead guilty to this but find myself becoming more Type B when there.) I just wish there were some way to import the driving culture of Los Angeles. We should figure out how to deal with it in a more sane manner. Any ideas?

Kathy Rushlow, Fairfax Station

DG: Traffic engineers tell me that courteous driving is not only the right thing to do but also the behavior most likely to ease traffic congestion. One way they make their case is by citing our response to brake lights.

I recall asking several engineers about a reader’s suggestion that the best way to improve traffic flow on the Beltway would be to have everyone go as fast as they can so they can get off the highway as quickly as possible, making room for more drivers.

For a moment, the engineers just stared at me as if I’d asked them whether the moon was really made of green cheese.

No, one said slowly, that’s not the answer. If drivers really want to improve traffic flow on the Beltway, they should travel at a prudent speed and maintain a safe following distance. That would reduce the chances they’ll have to hit the brakes. Brake lights flow back through traffic like a tidal wave. In heavy Beltway traffic, the effect of a sudden slowdown can extend back a couple of exits.

Similarly, they offer this unpleasant advice: When two lanes of traffic are working on a merge and a Type-A driver jumps the line, have a Type-B response. Don’t hang on the bumper of the car ahead to block out the interloper. Everyone in the line will get through the jam more quickly and more safely if drivers try to maintain a steady pace and avoid braking, surging forward and braking again.

Speaking mdot’s language

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I tried the new voice-activated Maryland 511 phone system on Aug. 12. I was leaving Rockville and checked to see how the Capital Beltway was before taking that route versus back roads to Route 32 in Howard County.

The call was answered promptly, and I could understand the voice well. I made several choices and ended up at “traffic.” When I tried to get information on the Beltway, however, the voice-recognition system did not work at all. I tried “Capital Beltway,” “Beltway,” and “495” to no avail. The system finally told me to try again later.

Eric B. Sheinin, North Potomac

DG: It will take us a while to get used to the voice of Maryland’s new traffic information system, and it will take a while for the voice-recognition system to get used to us.

The Maryland Department of Transportation this month launched a valuable new service for the state’s travelers known nationwide as the 511 system. Maryland has been providing travel information through its CHART program, which contains many of the same travel information offerings, but the new system puts all the information in an accessible format and adds a phone information component and a Twitter feed.

The Web site is MD511.org. The statewide Twitter feed is MD511State, and at MD511.org/TwitterRegions.aspx, you can narrow down the feeds to your region. In Maryland, the phone number is 511. (In Virginia, which has had the service since 2005, dialing 511 gets travelers in touch with the Commonwealth’s information system. The Virginia Web site is VA511.org. There’s no 511 in the District, but the city does have a helpful Web site for traveler information: GoDCgo.com.)

Travelers who call the Maryland number will find it leads to a conversation with the voice-recognition system, responding to your prompts with information about estimated trip times, road incidents, work zones and the weather as well as connections to transit, airport and tourism information.

I appreciate the letter writer’s feedback about his early test and would like to hear from others about whether they are encountering glitches or have tips on its use.

I tried the “Capital Beltway” experiment a few days after Sheinin and found the system recognized the words. It’s going to be like that. We’re in a learning phase. “Beltway” should be simple for the software compared with the various ways Marylanders pronounce place names such as “Towson.”

People using the system can help other travelers by hitting “77” while they’re still on the call and leaving a report about problems they encountered with the voice system.

Caution: Maryland bars drivers from using cellphones unless the device is hands-free. But I’m concerned about any use of 511 by a driver in motion. Sheinin was parked when he made his call. Imagine the distraction of trying to negotiate with a sometimes cranky voice-recognition system while simultaneously navigating in traffic.

Taking your eyes off the road to check the Twitter feed on your mobile device would be even more of a safety hazard. The traffic information provided by the Maryland and Virginia Twitter feeds is quite extensive, but follow the theme of the Maryland program: “Know before you go.”

 
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