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Drivers assess new Beltway lanes

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Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Only in the D.C. area, where after months of notices and with signage that could be seen for miles, would drivers be unaware that they were about to enter toll lanes! Then they swerve recklessly into traffic or suddenly stop, causing accidents.

They then have the gall to blame the Virginia Department of Transportation and the express lanes’ operators. Of course their excess speed, lack of road awareness and left-lane selfishness could not have anything to do with it. If there is any good to come of the problems, it may be if more drivers behave as one writer who said he would: “Move to the far-right lane and stay there.”

— Ed Conley, Fairfax

The opening of the 495 Express Lanes on the west side of the Capital Beltway in Virginia last weekend was preceded by a year-long education campaign by VDOT and its private partners about what they are, where they are and how to use them.

But experience with new traffic patterns tells me that many drivers have no idea what they’re getting into when they see them for the first time. Let the driver without sin on this cast the first stone.

Transportation planners also know that their projects will be used by humans, and they try to take that into account. Notice, for example, that when a new traffic signal is activated, it’s usually set to flash yellow for a few days before it goes to the full green, yellow or red just so drivers can get used to its existence.

So while I understand what officials are up against in trying to anticipate our mistakes, I wouldn’t let them off the hook when it comes to making adjustments on a project’s unintended consequences. That’s their job.

They already have been doing that at the south end of the express lanes in Springfield, where a spate of crashes occurred in the first couple of days. They almost certainly will need to do more tinkering.

While we all make mistakes, this is one thing we can’t tolerate: A driver who backs up on the Beltway is risking people’s lives just to avoid a small toll and has no business on our roads.

Other fixes

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Recent reports on accidents at the entrances to the 495 Express Lanes indicated that authorities would improve road markings leading to the entrances. While they’re at it, they might want to address the signage as well.

Last Saturday, I was traveling south on the Beltway from the American Legion Bridge. I was in the left lane approaching the beginning of the Express Lanes and encountered an overhead sign with a downward pointing arrow over my lane indicating that it led to the express lanes.

Not knowing how soon that lane would lead me into the express lanes, I briskly moved over one lane to the right, after checking to see that it was clear. Shortly thereafter, I found that the lane I had left did not become an express lane but rather remained the left lane of the regular Beltway roadway.

The potential for conflict under more-congested traffic conditions was apparent.

— Lawrence D. Powers,

Falls Church

The express lanes are four new lanes in the middle of the Beltway. They don’t remove any of the regular lanes. Notice that when Powers got confused, he reacted the way a driver should react: cautiously. He checked to make sure the lane to his right was clear.

Despite all the attention on the access points at the ends of the express lanes, most of the connections are at interchanges in between.

These are the two complaints I heard most often last week: Drivers heading west on Route 7 were surprised that the left lane becomes a turn lane at the Beltway interchange, and drivers at the Gallows Road/Beltway interchange think the traffic signals need adjustment.

VDOT officials have said they’ll be watching for the effects of the new lanes and are prepared to make further fixes.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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