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A Closer Look

Real-Time Armor for the Road Warrior

By Wayne Rash
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page F07

Traffic. It makes working in Washington much more painful than it should be. It sucks up our time, adds to our stress and can be downright dangerous. But one thing is certain: It's sure to be with us for the long haul.

Now, drivers have new ways to see what awaits them in their daily commuting battle. These real-time traffic-data services show you where roads are congested, where construction ties things up and where accidents and toll plazas create backups. We tested two: Rand McNally Traffic (www.randmcnally.com/traffic) is available for many wireless phones, while District-based XM Radio's NavTraffic (www.xmradio.com/xmnavtraffic) requires that you buy a new car, at least for now.

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Both services must answer a basic question: Why pay for either when the radio provides traffic reports for free? Problem is, those reports come only every 10 minutes, which might not be enough time to decide which route to take, and they can leave out important details.

With these services, information arrives almost as soon as it can be gathered from local transportation departments, sensors in roadways and traffic reports. (Both services rely on intermediaries to compile the data; Rand McNally uses the Annapolis firm TeleCommunication Systems Inc., while XM employs Chicago-based Navteq). Those sources cover other metropolitan areas in addition to Washington but can leave out a major highway or two, as well as most local streets.

Of the two services, Rand McNally Traffic would be the obvious choice on cost grounds alone. It costs $3.99 a month, plus airtime on Sprint PCS or Verizon Wireless, provided your cell phone runs Java or Brew programs. (These and other carriers also offer other, somewhat similar services.)

Once you load the program on your phone, you'll be presented with a tiny map of the area. You can scroll and zoom in to get a better view, up to the point where you can see which lanes of a highway are congested. The map also shows incidents and obstructions such as construction.

The biggest problem with Rand McNally Traffic is the device it's trapped in. The software handles the scrolling and zooming surprisingly well, but a cell phone's display is still too tiny to spend much time gawking at. And it's dangerous to use while driving -- either use it only when stopped or have a passenger do the looking.

That problem is largely avoided if you get XM Radio's NavTraffic, which puts the traffic data on the screen of a car's navigation system.

At the moment, it costs $49,100 -- but that includes a new Acura RL, the only car to offer this capability. Cadillac will start offering NavTraffic in some CTS models shortly, and aftermarket navigation systems from Alpine and Pioneer will provide the same service later this year.

In Acura's implementation, an eight-inch color screen allows a clear view of area traffic, with instructions spoken aloud in a synthesized voice. You can operate it by speaking commands, pressing on-screen buttons or twirling a control knob below it. The map scrolls as you move and can suggest alternate routes around tie-ups -- though not without glitches, such as when it blurted out a command to perform a U-turn on the 14th Street Bridge after reporting congestion on lower 14th Street.

Acura includes a year of free NavTraffic service, after which you'll have to get an XM Radio subscription ($9.99 a month, but rising to $12.95 a month on April 2) and pay $3.99 a month extra for NavTraffic itself.

In our head-to-head testing, both the phone and the car's screen provided the same information. The version in the Acura proved much easier to use after a couple of days, but the almost-real-time utility of this kind of service was clear enough either way. If you drive to work daily -- and that commute sticks to the major highways these services cover -- one of these solutions could save you a lot of time.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company