At five minutes to 4 on a recent afternoon, the intersection of 19th and I streets NW was more or less in chaos.
The driver of a Mercedes-Benz convertible darted across the intersection so he wouldn't have to slow for an ambulance. A cyclist etched a complete circle around the intersection before deciding to head north on 19th -- against traffic. A Volkswagen Beetle cut off an SUV as both made a turn, and this small canyon of downtown Washington was filled with the blare of an angry horn.
George Kollie, left, and Timothy Robertson direct evening traffic last week at 17th and I streets NW. Monitors have been deployed to corners since October.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
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Moments later, as if a stern teacher had entered an unruly classroom, the chaos came under control. A city worker, wearing a vest with yellow reflector stripes and wielding a whistle, walked to the center of the intersection, threw up a glove with yellow reflectors and a bright red stop sign in the middle, and traffic halted.
In an age of "Don't Block the Box" signs, red-light cameras, countdown signals for pedestrians and other fresh attempts to clear up clogged intersections, District officials have decided that nothing does the trick quite as well as putting a couple of municipal employees in the middle of the road.
For the next 2 1/2 hours, two monitors ushered traffic through when there was room and held it before the intersection jammed, regardless of what the traffic lights indicated. Those turning left were permitted to go when they could and were stopped at times when walkers needed to cross. Cyclists displayed respect for the law.
The monitors have been assigned to intersections across the city since October from 7 to 9:30 a.m. and from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays in an effort to rein in drivers, keep traffic flowing and give pedestrians a little protection as they try to navigate rush-hour streets that can have as many as 200,000 drivers on them in a day. The monitors don't write tickets during rush hours, but between shifts, they ticket double-parkers, drivers who park in loading zones and other parking scofflaws.
Currently, 29 monitors control about 10 intersections on a given day, including such hot spots as Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th Street NW downtown and Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW in Georgetown.
Despite enthusiasm from city officials, business leaders, drivers and people on foot who said the monitors are a boon, problems have arisen. Drivers, trained to follow traffic light signals, appeared confused when the monitors ordered them to stop on a green light or go on a red one. Some refused to go through a red light until it changed. Other drivers and some pedestrians simply ignored the monitors, leaving them to whistle into the wind.
"No whistle is going to stop nobody," said one pedestrian who ignored instructions from a monitor at 14th and H streets NW one afternoon last week.
Some monitors also haven't quite nailed their new profession: In one instance, a monitor stopped northbound traffic on 14th Street on a green light so a southbound driver could make a left turn, but the driver was stymied because of pedestrians on H Street and everybody was held up.
Traffic experts said the monitors can cause more problems than they solve if they're giving instructions that conflict with traffic lights. "People are used to seeing signals, and they know how to react to them," said Professor Philip J. Tarnoff, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Transportation Technology. "There's a real motorist expectancy issue, and if something is happening different from what they expect, you can have safety problems."
Tarnoff said that although one intersection may improve, the monitors could cause problems down the street by disrupting traffic signal timing set by engineers based on the city's road network.
"They may be doing great things at one intersection but making the system overall worse," he said.
Douglas Noble, the city's chief traffic engineer, said changes have been made during the program to try to deal with these issues.