Md. Traffic Patrol Supervisor Senses Trouble Miles Away

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Paul Hubbe drives the Capital Beltway, looking for trouble. "You see that?" he says to me. "See what?" I reply, knowing by now what I'm in for. Hubbe has been trying to teach me how to look at the Beltway, and I think he's just about given up.

"The Post have a vision plan?" he asks. We're driving the inner loop in Silver Spring in early morning fog. What he saw -- and I didn't -- was a very recent crash over on the outer loop that had shut down the morning commute for hundreds of drivers stretched back east toward College Park.

Hubbe hates traffic. His advice to you: Move closer to work. Of course, you might feel better about your commute if you were behind the wheel of a big yellow F-450 Super Duty truck with banks of lights up top and a winch and orange cones in back, the type of vehicle Hubbe drives for the Maryland State Highway Administration.

He does this to keep the rest of us moving. Hubbe is an SHA supervisor for traffic incident management in the Washington metropolitan area. To do the job, he's got that big truck with "Emergency Traffic Patrol" stenciled on the side. He's got a computer display, scanners, an AM/FM radio, a cellphone, his eyes, his ears -- even his nose.

Using Good Sense

Before the sun had risen over the Beltway, he had sniffed the air and pronounced it problematic. "Hey! Get over!" he booms out the window to the truck driver in the next lane. If not for the sound walls along the Beltway, his voice would awaken hundreds of people still in their beds, and it is easily enough to get the attention of the truck driver, who pulls to the shoulder. We park behind him, and Hubbe walks up to point out that the truck's gas cap had fallen off and fuel is sloshing out. That's what Hubbe had smelled.

Back on the Beltway and just west of Colesville Road, Hubbe sees two vehicles on the shoulder. It's a relatively minor accident. His first goal is to make sure no one is injured and needs medical help. With everyone physically okay, he offers the drivers advice on exchanging information and getting a tow.

Because we're all on the right shoulder, he hasn't flipped on the flashing lights.

If the emergency vehicle is on the shoulder, he says, you don't need to make a big show with the lights. That just encourages rubbernecking and slows down the traffic he's trying to keep moving. Also, the hands on the steering wheel tend to go where the driver's eyes are focused. If that's toward the emergency vehicles, then a second crash could result.

An Average Morning

Hubbe has seen his share of accidents on a shift that starts at 5 a.m. A tractor-trailer and a car got into a tangle in the darkness, temporarily blocking two lanes. Shortly after 6 a.m., another crash had two right lanes blocked off. Hubbe stopped his truck behind the crash while rescue workers placed a crash victim in an ambulance. This was a time for flashing lights and flares. But by 6:28 a.m., Lisa Baden is reporting on WTOP radio that the crash was "moved to the shoulder right away."

Hubbe frequently tells me to look way ahead into the traffic. He's got eyes for anything out of the ordinary. He stops by a car pulled off on the outer loop shoulder and talks to the driver. Turns out the driver is waiting to pick up a passenger. Hubbe reports that on his radio. Happens frequently, he says. Later, he will point out a man sitting on the inner loop shoulder at Georgia Avenue, just waiting for a ride.

By now, Hubbe has pointed out so many things I would have missed that he's got me staring forward competitively. Every time traffic slows, I peer into the far distance, like Ahab's lookout, ready to call out the next disturbance on the surface.

But the Beltway doesn't behave like that. Traffic can slow for no visible reason, then speed back up. It's got a life of its own and, according to Hubbe, its own set of characters.

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