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Who's to blame for traffic trouble?

Sunday, October 24, 2010; 12:03 AM

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

In this election year, it seems that everyone wants to learn how the candidates plan to solve the area's traffic problems.

People expect elected officials to solve the traffic problem as if it's the government that's screwing up. However, my non-scientific experience tells me that most traffic problems are caused by human error or by accidents that can be avoided by simple measures, such as paying attention, providing plenty of distance from your car to the car in front of you, and not doing other things while driving - phone, text, e-mail, and so on.

I don't understand when our fellow citizens became a bunch of entitled people, and it bothers me that we're always looking for someone else to solve our problems.

- Ray Hwang, Fairfax

I don't know of any reliable D.C. regional statistic or study that would show us what percentage of traffic problems are our own fault, rather than the fault of something the governments - the transportation agencies and enforcement agencies - either did or didn't do.

There's this anecdotal measure: About half the people who write to me have a governmental complaint - a mishandled road project or a mistimed traffic signal. The other half want to complain about each other.

Many people see an overlap. They say the design of some roads, or some merge points, can encourage speeding, weaving, tailgating or other forms of aggressive driving. Others say that law enforcement doesn't do enough to crack down on aggressive drivers and distracted drivers.

We're a lot better at identifying traffic problems than developing fixes. During the 1990s, concerns about aggressive driving led to laws that criminalized that behavior.

The manuals that our young drivers must study to get their licenses now include sections devoted to aggressive driving. The Maryland manual relates the inadequacies of our transportation environment to the bad behavior of individuals:

"It is anticipated that the demand on our road system will increase 40 percent by 2020 and that road capacity will only increase by 9 percent. Today's drivers are becoming increasingly frustrated on roads that routinely handle double the number of cars of 20 years ago."

Don't take that as Maryland characterizing aggressive drivers as victims of society. The manual also calls out the biggest culprits who contribute to crashes - including those who speed, tailgate, make unsafe lane changes and run red lights or stop signs. It also advises prospective drivers of the many things they can do to avoid sinning. No. 1 on the list: "Always allow extra travel time."

Our concerns about each other's driving keep evolving. In September, as local police officers were publicizing the latest round of their annual Smooth Operator crackdown on aggressive drivers, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that distracted driving last year led to 5,474 deaths and 448,000 accidents.

Again, governments are trying to make us do what common sense should dictate. Maryland recently joined in with its ban on driving while using a hand-held phone. Bans on texting while driving have become popular nationwide.

As with the stigmatizing of aggressive driving, our new loathing of distracted driving opens up opportunities for personal denial. We older drivers can look down at a new generation enthralled with the latest technologies, yet can still be distracted the old fashioned way - by looking at a map or fiddling with the radio - and the consequences can be equally as tragic.

Enforcing HOV

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Since cameras are used for other traffic situations - why can't we find a way to utilize cameras to control illegal use of high-occupancy vehicle lanes? If someone receives a citation inadvertently, let them take their situation to traffic court.

It is very frustrating to sit in the regular lanes and see many one-person vehicles in the HOV lanes at rush hour.

- Barbara Cloutier, Germantown

The frustration of HOV drivers who do the right thing is very understandable, and I do endorse enforcement cameras to catch speeders and red-light runners. But setting up cameras to see into vehicles and count passengers is tricky. I'm afraid we'd be sending too many people to court unfairly. The Virginia high-occupancy toll lanes, which will be free for carpoolers, are not planning to use this type of enforcement.

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. To contact Dr. Gridlock by mail: Write to Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. By e-mail: drgridlock@washpost.com. On the Dr. Gridlock blog: blog.washingtonpost.com/drgridlock. On Twitter: drgridlock.

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