Police presence makes I-270 commute sane — and survivable

By Robert Thomson
Sunday, May 9, 2010; C02

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I have carpooled with my husband from upper Montgomery County to the office park near Westfield Mall for about four years. As a passenger, the things I see on a daily basis are often horrifying: road rage threatening multiple cars, lane changers in congested traffic at high speed while on the cell, folks texting at 65 mph, drivers who (a) think Interstate 270 is an autobahn, especially in the HOV lane, or (b) drive like a video game with no real sense of consequence to reckless behavior behind the wheel.

Most trips are tension-filled, as it is virtually impossible to progress up and down that highway at 60 to 65 mph, even in the HOV lane, without close calls.

But Wednesday was different! In our 6-to-6:30 a.m. trip to Bethesda, we probably saw 10 cruisers with lights on giving tickets for HOV violators or other infractions. Yes, the result was a bit more congestion as drivers slowed down to gawk or be sure they were not the next target.

But it was the first trip in a very, very long time where the traffic flow was sane, at a reasonable speed, and the lane changers and leapfroggers seemed to change their habits, at least for a day. While speeders and aggressive drivers everywhere are a safety problem, I do not see nearly enough police on I-270.

So I celebrate this day and look forward to our trip home, hoping it is more safe than yesterday and glad that Maryland's coffers will be filled with fines from these irresponsible drivers.

-- Kathy Turley, Damascus

Police did put on quite a show Wednesday with an enforcement campaign in the high-occupancy vehicle lanes of Maryland and Northern Virginia. The I-270 lanes, separated only by a white line from the regular lanes, make enforcement difficult. But as Turley reported, Wednesday's operation seemed to do more good than harm.

She wrote back to say the evening commute was better than usual. The police presence seemed to put drivers on their best behavior.

Turley wrote that "one of our biggest fears in riding the HOV lane is those people, generally when traffic gets bad, who decide that now is the time to get into the HOV lane -- correct number of passengers not a requirement -- from a near-dead stop while HOV is traveling along at a higher rate of speed, thus the brake slam to avoid a collision."

The impatient pullout from the regular lanes is so frequent that they use extra caution to avoid a collision.

"You can sort of feel this coming in the HOV lane when you see traffic very slow or stopped in the regular lanes and some drivers in the far left lane before the HOV lane are riding very, very close to the line, waiting for when they think they can pop over into the HOV lane," Turley said. "We see it time and time again, as evidenced by the fingernail marks in the passenger side armrest."

On Wednesday, the normally itchy drivers tended to stay more to the center of the lane, "like little peas in a pod," Turley said.

Hooray for enforcement.

Prudence, please

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I have biked several thousand miles, including all the way across Ireland. I have biked in London and in Amsterdam. I love biking. But:

I consider the District Department of Transportation initiative to encourage residents to bike on busy city streets, including during rush hours, to be ill-advised, because so many cyclists totally ignore stop signs and stoplights. If the D.C. government can't get serious about enforcing traffic rules for bicyclists, then it should stop encouraging bicycling on busy city streets.

My heart is often in my mouth as I drive to work on Massachusetts Avenue SE from 15th Street SE to North Capitol Street during the morning rush. I have yet to see a cyclist stop at a red light! And cyclists routinely weave in and out of lanes of moving traffic. It is only a matter of time before some D.C. cyclists are killed or badly maimed as the result of these reckless cycling behaviors.

-- Pat Taylor, The District

The District, and our other jurisdictions, need to innovate to solve traffic congestion, but they also need to protect travelers -- sometimes from themselves. The District is launching several biking and walking programs this month. Enforcers need to follow the engineers.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Personal responses are not always possible.

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