New look at Maryland effort to curb aggressive driving

The Washington area's notorious traffic congestion gives rise to the sort of runaway frustration that leads to aggressive driving. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010

Every time I visit my son in Montgomery County, I ask him about the signs on the Beltway that read "Aggressive Driver Imaging in Use." He has no idea what they mean. Do you?

-- Glenn Jasperse,

Sheboygan, Wis.

Yes. In fact, Answer Man answered a similar question back in 2005. Has much changed since then? Well, aggressive driving has been joined by another scourge on our nation's highways: distracted driving. Oh, and one more thing: For now, at least, aggressive driver imaging is not in use.

We'll get to that in a moment, but first, what is aggressive driving? Is it speeding? Tailgating? Swerving? Yes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines aggressive driving as, "when individuals commit a combination of moving traffic offenses so as to endanger other persons or property." Maryland defines it as the simultaneous commitment of three or more specific no-nos, including speeding, passing on the right, running a red light, tailgating and weaving.

Answer Man remembers a time when there wasn't aggressive driving, or rather, there was aggressive driving, there just wasn't "aggressive driving," as a separate area of concern and study. It was in the 1990s that it was codified. Traffic researchers have noticed that incidents of it seem to increase in congested areas.

How to deal with it? What works best is a combination of public education (public service announcements, signage) and law enforcement. "That package is very effective in sort of shifting community expectations with regard to the behavior," said Jeff Michael, the NHTSA's associate administrator for research and program development. "It lets motorists know that other motorists around them don't approve of this behavior and, in fact, it is enforced by law enforcement."

But one of the most disruptive ways to enforce traffic rules is to stick a police cruiser by the side of the road. That just causes more congestion and, potentially, more accidents (and, perversely, more aggressive driving). So in November 1997, Maryland State Police unveiled the ADVANCE Vehicle. (ADVANCE stands for Aggressive Driving Video and Non-Contact Enforcement.) The vehicle is an unmarked van packed with high-tech equipment: lasers to detect speeding, a video camera to capture how a vehicle is moving, a still camera to snap a photo of the license plate. While the vehicle's driver drives, an operator monitors the equipment via a computer display.

If this sounds like the automotive equivalent of an AWACS plane, there's a reason for that. ADVANCE was developed by the Army's Aberdeen Test Center, the same people who test depleted-uranium armaments and other things that go boom.

That van does the "imaging" to which the signs refer. The Capital Beltway was chosen as its battleground because . . . well, you know why: Traffic stinks there. You get mad. You get aggressive.

One thing ADVANCE doesn't do is send out tickets. The information is used to send warning letters.

It should be clear by now that a single van deployed intermittently can't catch all aggressive drivers. And right now, it's not catching any.

"At this exact moment, the van is off the road getting software upgraded," said Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman. He did not have an estimate for when it would return. "Our troopers continue to enforce that visually in their patrols. Project ADVANCE was never the sole weapon."

Stormy weather

In last week's column, Answer Man placed the old U.S. Weather Bureau building that once stood at 24th and M streets NW -- where precipitation data were recorded until 1941 -- in Foggy Bottom. Gary Griffith points out that the neighborhood is more properly the West End. What is the West End? It's the part of Washington that was westernmost when Georgetown was a separate city. Today it's the area roughly within the parallelogram formed by New Hampshire Avenue, N Street, Rock Creek and K Street.

Also, although 1890 was the year in which the Weather Bureau came under civilian control, its roots date to 1870, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the law requiring that the secretary of war gather meteorological data. Well, not the secretary personally, but the Army Signal Corps.

Write answerman@washpost.com.


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