When Highways Jam, Is It Better To Try Back Roads?

By Robert Thomson
Sunday, March 23, 2008

You're stopped on a highway behind unending taillights. Radio reports say the problem is miles ahead. Do you bail out onto local roads? What do you need to know in deciding?

Dear Dr Gridlock:

Last Sunday afternoon, returning home from Annapolis, I heard about a backup on the outer loop of the Capital Beltway caused by a crash near River Road. By the time I passed New Hampshire Avenue, I could see the backup.

Traffic reports indicated that lanes had been taken away at the crash site by cleanup, so I decided I'd get off at University Boulevard and go the back way home -- University Boulevard to Veirs Mill Road to Route 28 to Interstate 270.

I'm not sure I made a good choice.

After exiting the Beltway and moving onto University, I expected to get into traffic-light sync. But was I mistaken. And I had forgotten about the strange traffic patterns on the roads. It's enough to drive someone unfamiliar with the area crazy, or cause crashes.

It took 45 minutes to go from my exit at University to I-270. I felt like even with the stop-and-go on the Beltway, it might have been quicker.

Dennis Utter


I shared Utter's pain in this backup on a trip to Dulles International Airport. The drive from Silver Spring to the American Legion Bridge, normally about 20 minutes on a Sunday, took 50 minutes. There's this river that limits alternatives, so I stuck to the Beltway.

Plus, a driver bailing out of a highway jam is quite likely to encounter the obstacles our letter-writer confronted. Consider the road network: Montgomery County isn't strong on east-west options.

The county does have an advanced traffic control system, but Utter said he rarely encountered two green lights in a row. Also, Utter wrote, he had to navigate around unforeseen obstacles, such as a row of parked cars where he wanted to line up for a right turn.

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