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Dr. Gridlock's guide to safe D.C. travel during the holidays

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By Robert Thomson
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 5:46 PM

'Tis the season to be patient. Many people will be shopping, visiting old friends and attending celebrations in places where they don't normally travel during the rest of the year. Drivers will see plenty of confusion, brake lights and trick driving. Here's a survival guide for travel in the Washington area during the holidays.

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Tysons

One of the region's leading shopping areas occupies the same space as one of its biggest work zones. This is where the high-occupancy toll lanes and the Dulles Metrorail projects meet. If you rarely visit the shopping areas, note these changes.

l Route 7 west of Route 123 looks like a go-cart track. The lanes weave. They are lined with orange barrels and concrete barriers. The drivers ahead, and to your side, will make sudden moves in heavy traffic. The mid-block turns have disappeared but the main intersections and their left-turn lanes still exist.

lGreat caution is needed on the new, temporary ramp from southbound Route 123 to westbound Route 7. Look sharp for the entrance after passing International Drive. Then notice the two-way traffic, the driveways and the 15-mph speed limit as the ramp winds toward a stop sign at Route 7. Right on Route 7 is the only way to go there.

l The left lanes on Route 123 at the Capital Beltway are blocked for construction of a new Beltway bridge. Drivers who leave Tysons on northbound Route 123 and hope to reach the Beltway's inner loop must resist the reflex to stay right. That ramp is gone. Stay in the left lane, then move into the two left-turn lanes at the traffic signal.

l There's lots to gawk at, especially near the Beltway and Route 123. Drivers will see steel beams for bridge construction, with steel beams over the Beltway at Route 123 and the truss overhead along Route 123 erecting the elevated rail line. Stay focused on those lane shifts.

l At Tysons Corner Center, shoppers can check out traffic conditions and bus routes before leaving the mall by looking at TV screens near the movie theaters, Barnes & Noble and Macy's.

Elsewhere

l The National Christmas Tree Lighting, the one that each year destroys the holiday spirit of hundreds of D.C. commuters who get stuck in the resulting congestion during rush hour, is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 9, on the Ellipse, south of the White House.

l The District's street parking fees have gone up since last year. In popular shopping and entertainment areas, it costs $2 per hour and the rules are enforced on Saturdays. Look for the new meters that take credit cards.

l From Black Friday through New Year's Day, the Virginia Department of Transportation customizes signal timing plans at 16 shopping centers in Northern Virginia. The goal is to give adequate time for drivers entering and exiting shopping centers while reducing traffic queues and keeping the main roads moving. Maryland uses a different system in which signals respond to current demand throughout the year.

l Maryland doesn't have a Tysons Corner. But there are many hot spots in the D.C. area for seasonal traffic. Among them are Rockville Pike, Landover Road near the Boulevard at the Capital Centre, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Route 100 near Arundel Mills and I-295 and I-95 nearNational Harbor.

Travel tips

l Some shoppers will take Metrobuses to avoid driving. Remember that this year the window for making free bus-to-bus transfers was reduced from three hours to two.

l You don't have to be a party animal to become an impaired driver. There's room for a designated driver even at a family Thanksgiving dinner.

l Texting and phoning are obvious distractions for drivers, but the holiday season broadens the opportunities for diverting attention. Don't stare at maps, directions, shopping lists, the children, gift catalogues, or Christmas decorations. Just drive.

l Avoid multiple trips to the mall. It's annoying for you and it just generates more traffic. Pick your target, arrive early on a weekend and stay till you're done.


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