What’s the 511? Md. tries to answer.

You’re stuck in traffic and fuming. The only thing moving is the clock on your dashboard. You want to scream: “What’s the holdup, and when’s it gonna end?”

Technology, with ever-increasing frequency, can step in with the answer. Yet another option had its debut Thursday in Maryland when the state’s 511 system became operational.

Now you can dial those digits to find out what’s going on. Although Maryland State Highway Administration officials would prefer that you call to check the roads before getting behind the wheel, they recognize that you will often do it while driving, so the system is based on a series of voice-activated prompts: You can get the answers you need without fiddling with the buttons on your phone.

Simply say “Capital Beltway” or “Baltimore-Washington Parkway” to get the latest traffic information on those roads.

The federally funded 511 program has been spreading across the country. Virginia expanded it statewide in 2005. The District and Delaware have yet to get on board.

The system offers real-time traffic information collected by Inrix, a commercial data hub that uses a system of transponders aboard fleet vehicles, such as UPS trucks. The 511 system also provides weather, transit and tourism information, and it can connect users to other services, such as Metro and ­E-ZPass.

In a region that registers each year as one of the most congested in the nation, drivers have learned to take advantage of every option to beat the traffic.

“If you’re at the mall and you’re planning your trip home and you know it’s rush hour, you can call and get information,” said Glenn McLaughlin, deputy director for systems at the SHA. “It’s a great resource in real time to help people know the impact an incident may be having.”

The new system can be customized by those who register on the md511.org Web site . Users can then enter their regular routes into the system; for example, “home to work” or “Bethesda to Ocean City.” Enter a mobile phone number and then anytime someone calls in from that number, the system will ask whether the caller wants information on the specified routes.

Users also can designate traffic cameras they want to monitor, which are accessible via a mobile Web site, md511.mobi. The system offers users partial access to a network of 542 cameras, including those operated by the SHA and others to which they have access (the functionality will depend on the smartphone).

SHA officials point out that holding a cellphone while driving is illegal in Maryland, so use of the camera feature on the road should be delegated to passengers.

The system doesn’t cover every roadway in Maryland, only the significant ones. The Inrix data on which the system relies quickly get fuzzy on less-traveled roads because there is insufficient feedback from the transponders. Maryland’s system does include some basic information on Northern Virginia.

The system divides the state into four regions — Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore, the Baltimore area and the Washington-centric counties south of Baltimore. It automatically knows which one you’re calling from, either from the first three digits of a land-line phone or the cellphone tower transmitting a mobile call.

The Maryland 511 system already is on Twitter, and Facebook access is in the offing.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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