Dr. Gridlock Discusses Metro Search Policy

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, October 27, 2008; 2:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Oct. 27 at 1 p.m. ET to address the new Metro search policy and all of your traffic and transit issues.

The transcript follows.

The Dr. Gridlock column receives hundreds of letters each month from motorists and transit riders throughout the Washington region. They ask questions and make complaints about getting around a region plagued with some of the worst traffic in the nation. The doctor diagnoses problems and tries to bring relief.

Dr. Gridlock appears in The Post's Metro section on Sunday and in the Extra section on Thursday. His comments also appear on the Web site's Get There blog. You can send e-mails for the newspaper column to drgridlock@washpost.com or write to Dr. Gridlock at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.


Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers. Our timing today is such that we may have the first chance to discuss Metro's new policy in which people who want to ride trains will be subject to searches of their stuff.

I'll tell you exactly how I feel about it and publish as many of your comments and questions as time allows.


Red Line to Shady Grove: Random bag searches? Come onnnnnn. Does Metro really think this is going to do anything? It's not going to make me feel the least bit safer. It will annoy the heck out of me if I get stopped after working all night long.

washingtonpost.com: Metro to Conduct Random Bag Searches (Post, Oct. 27)

Robert Thomson: I've been riding Metro for 20 years and never had a reason to reconsider it until now. I'm not afraid to ride the trains. I'm afraid of giving up the rights that hundreds of thousands of Americans did die to protect over the past couple hundred years.

Since the transit authority and it's board chose not to discuss this with the public before implementing its random search policy today, it's difficult for me to offer you a clear statement of why they think you should give up your right to be secure in your property for a $1.65 train ride.

I know there's many sides to the safety vs. liberty argument. Always have been. So maybe we can do a little bit of the debating here that Metro didn't see fit to engage in.

You can see the link to the story that Lena Sun filed this morning as Metro announced the new policy.


no food on Metro + searches: If Metro finds my brown bag lunch in my backpack on the way to work, am I going to jail?

Robert Thomson: Lena says she asked that question this morning. It's illegal to eat food on Metro, but you can carry it.

If police do find anything illegal during the search, they can arrest you. To me -- and you know this is just me talking; I'm not a lawyer or a constitutional scholar -- this is about the same as a police officer pulling over your car on a highway, telling you to get out and searching your car.

This is not like a pre-flight search. There's a reasonable public interest in preventing people from taking weapons aboard planes and the searches are clearly effective in preventing that from happening.

This random search of every so-and-so rider at one Metro station or another -- what would lead me to believe that could be effective as a safety measure?

Can anyone talk me down on this?


Washington, D.C.: The bag-search plan is utterly ridiculous. I can't imagine that any intelligent person expects this to work, unless the idea is to deter potential terrorists from even trying, like they do at airports. In that case, they would need to search every single person and every single purse, lunch bag, and shoe. The way they've proposed it, 16 of 17 terrorists will waltz right through.

The only way to effectively increase security on Metro is to take the broken-window approach. Assign enough metro cops that no one gets away with eating or drinking, or leaving their newspaper, or horsing around on the platform. A highly visible, no-nonsense police force will deter the serious bad guys and have the wonderful side benefit of keeping Metro clean and pleasant for the everyone.

Robert Thomson: The "broken window" approach has had a lot of success in law enforcement. The theory is that one broken window in a neighborhood that goes unrepaired and unpunished leads to more broken windows, which leads good people to feel less safe and encourages criminals.

It's a good reason for Metro to enforce the ban on eating aboard trains. Though I did feel secure on the trains, it's always good to see a Metro transit officer on patrol along the platforms or in the cars, and I wish there were more of them.

I think this bag search business is a waste of their time. I'd rather see officers aboard the trains than randomly pawing through bags.

People can refuse to be searched -- as I would. But what if it really is a terrorist with a bomb? Would any self-respecting terrorist submit to a search? If someone is determined to get a bomb on a train, this new policy of hitting one station or another and targeting every so and so many people at the entrance isn't going to stop that person.


Rockville, Md.: I'm sure you'll have a lot of unanswerable question regarding the Metro bag searches (unanswerable since WMATA probably doesn't have the answers) but I'm wondering what would happen to me if I were on a train going to work, a WMATA officer asks to search my briefcase, and I said no.

Am I arrested, removed from the train, etc.? Every violation needs to have a pre-defined penalty. What is the result of a simple "No"?

Robert Thomson: Metro isn't planning to search people on the trains. (But then, who knew they were planning to search people at all?) What the police will do is randomly search people before they go through the fare gates.

If you refuse to have your bag searched you will not be arrested. However, you will not be allowed to enter the system. Metro says it has the legal authority to do this. (That doesn't make it a good idea.) It says the courts have upheld such programs, including New York's.


Forest inside the Trees: Dr. Gridlock, do all these dissenters of Metro for checking bags really understand what is going on here?

There's no violation of any civil rights. Metro is privately owned and funded by public entities. No different than say, Verizon Center. When I go to a Caps game, I can't bring in certain things and they check EVERYONE's bags. When I go to a concert, I can't bring in a camera. Same thing at Nissan Pavilion.

How about entry into Kings Dominion or Busch Gardens? You have to open your bags there too and they'll take your food!

Flying through an airport, you have to dispose of all liquids unless the doc gives you a note for health drinks.

I'd rather be safe than sorry so when I come upon a bag checkpoint, I open up my bag ahead of time and have it ready for security. They're grateful.

Have these people not seen the forest through the trees?

Robert Thomson: Forest, thanks for offering this defense. So far I'm not seeing much of that coming into the mailbag.

But I'm not sure I follow the first point your making. I don't know any sense in which the transit authority is "privately owned." (If it is, I want my tax money back.) And I don't see that taking a subway ride is the equivalent of going to a game at Verizon, or FedEx or Nats Park.

I think the people who run those venues do have the right to impose certain restrictions on admittance to a commercial event.

Governments don't have rights. People have rights. Governments have obligations to protect those rights.

The transit authority today is not living up to that obligation.


Beltsville, Md.: Maybe Metro is trying to reduce crowding on trains. This certainly will drive a large group of people back into their cars. This will also mean that the loyalists will get tagged with another fare increase to support these searches and other frivolous spending!

Robert Thomson: I'd like to think that people would rebel against this policy, which will reduce travelers' rights for no apparent gain in security. But I doubt that we'll see a serious decline in ridership.

For many people, the main question will be whether these searches will delay their ride. It might create some crowding at station entrances. Even if the searches are conducted efficiently by specially trained officers, as Metro says, it's still bound to create quite a scene.


Alexandria, Va.: Not to be unhelpful, but if I didn't want to have my bags/belonging searched, I'd say no. Leave the station. Come back in 3-5 minutes and hope I wasn't selected as the Nth person for inspection at that moment. Has WMATA considered this anti-search technique?

Robert Thomson: I'd rather walk than submit to a police search of my property with no probable cause for that action. But say it happened to me trying to enter Metro Center Station. I'd refuse the search and walk to Gallery Place.

Here's the Metro side: Metro says it's doing these random searches of your property to deter terrorist attacks by increasing the potential for detecting explosives or other hazardous material and to disrupt the ability of terrorists to discern a pattern in security measures.

The effort, Metro says, aims to increase awareness of the overall safety of passengers and employees in the Metro system.

I rode the trains after Sept. 11, after Madrid and after London. Metro certainly has potential as a terrorist target. I wouldn't want to be a victim of an attack and don't want you to be either. But this new policy doesn't make me feel any safer than I felt, say, on Sunday, when like tens of thousands of others, I rode the trains to various points to view the Marine Corps Marathon.


Union Station: What kind of training will the officers receive before searching begins? Obviously, the concern about profiling looms large. Not to mention, I can't wait to see how they react when I open up my breast pump for inspection.

Robert Thomson: Talk about drawing a crowd.

Seriously, I'm not concerned about the training of the officers. I think they'll be very professional.

Here's what Metro says: The officers have gone through extensive training in areas such as conflict management, suicide bomber recognition, legal aspects of security inspection points, indicators of terrorist activity, behavioral assessment and explosive ordinance detection and disposal.

The procedure: Outside the Metrorail fare gates or before the fare box on a bus, a person whose items have been randomly selected for inspection will be taken for inspection off to the side. The would-be train or bus rider will be asked to open his or her carry-on item.

An officer will visually inspect the contents. The inspection will be limited to searching for explosives and other items that may be harmful. Areas of bags that aren't capable of concealing an explosive will not be opened. If an explosive-detecting dog is there, the would-be traveler may be asked to have his or her carry-on item sniffed by the dog. (Watch out for the Big Mac and fries.)


Rockville, Md.: How does the New York transit random search work?

Robert Thomson: Metro says the NYC program is very similar to the one that Metro launched today: Random searches outside the entrances of some stations at no set times. People can refuse to submit to a search, but if they do so, they won't be allowed into the transit system.

There was a court case over the NYC program (MacWade v. Kelly) that upheld the searchers.


Silver Spring, Md.: With the new policy out from Metro, what are the rights of the riders? The article cited security (and increased thefts?) as the concern. I'll buy it. Illegal guns or other illegal weapons, large bombs, ok.

But the first time someone gets nailed for pot? Two wallets in your bag -- do you have to prove you have permission to be carrying the second one? What about a wad of cash? Do they confiscate and give you a receipt or arrest you because you're unwilling to explain on a train full of people why you are carrying $250 in cash? What about something you may carry for your own personal security?

I'd like to hear more about this -- I'm too boring to ever get searched, but everyone on that train has the right to know exactly what's going to happen if they are asked to open their bag, and what will happen if Officer Smith doesn't like what's in there.

Robert Thomson: The searches will be done randomly (for example, the transit police may decide to search every 16th person). They'll be done before you enter the system, so you won't be searched on a platform or train under this policy.

But no matter how boring we look, we can still be searched. They say they're not profiling people. So if Osama is No. 15, he'll get through the fare gate.)

I think you're okay on the wad of cash. But Metro says that if an illegal item is found it will be confiscated as evidence and police will cite or arrest the person carrying it.


"When I go to a Caps game: I can't bring in certain things and they check EVERYONE's bags.":

Well, for me, that's the point. I agree it's not a civil rights issue, but they are not checking everyone's bags, and they will never because of the logistics, cost, resources that it would entail. However, this program is silly. What is to stop a terrorist from simply refusing to be searched and going to a different station? What should be done is for more officers to be assigned to metro stations and trains and to strictly enforce the smallest of crimes/disturbances (eating, drinking, horsing around of teens, antisocial behavior etc). The broken windows theory is the way to go, as the earlier poster noted.

Robert Thomson: I appreciate the work our police forces do, on the trains, buses and streets, to protect travelers. I felt secure on the trains and buses, but the presence of officers is always welcome.

I'd like to see more officers on patrol in the system and enforcing the rules -- even at the level of food and drink.

While we can all recognize the extreme seriousness of a real terrorist threat, I don't see any way that occasionally searching people at the entrances is likely to make us safer.


Arlington, Va.: Would you feel equally opposed to submitting to having your bag searched if everyone's bag was searched? I'm asking because we already agree to that when we go into any Smithsonian building, or federal building. I don't like it, but I've gotten used to it.

But if it's random, and a metro cop can decided that he doesn't like my looks so I get searched, then I'd be even more annoyed. Plus, it won't do a darn thing to keep us save.

Robert Thomson: Metro says it won't profile people. It will just pick people at random based on some prearranged formula, like stopping every 16th person.

They won't stop everyone. They can't. Think of the airports. You think we can ask subway riders to show up at the station two hours early to get through the security lines?


Silver Spring, Md.: So if I'm running to jump onto a train, I can be stopped to have my bag searched, causing me to miss my train. With all the inefficiencies of Metro, this is a bad idea.

Robert Thomson: Yes, Silver Spring. You may be hustling because you see a train approaching the overhead platform. Police can still stop you for a search. (I'm pretty sure they won't take, "But I'll miss my train" as an excuse. Plus, it's hard to imagine how such a security operation will fail to draw a crowd of rubberneckers.


Governments have obligations to protect those rights. : No they don't. Governments have obligations to enforce the law, not to protect anybody's rights. For instance, despite what many think, a police officer's job is not to protect the citizens in which they are posted. Their job is to enforce the laws of the state/town/city/county etc. That's all.

Robert Thomson: If I'm walking toward the fare gate with my pack on my back, what law am I violating?


Washington, D.C.: Do you know when the Next Bus service will be working for MetroBus? And when will the new fancy bus stops be operational?

Robert Thomson: There are plenty more comments in the mailbag on the search issue, which you can tell I feel strongly about, but thanks to you commenters on other topics for being so patient.

Metro says the Next Bus system, which provides electronic notifications about when the next bus will actually show up at a stop, should be back in business by the middle of next year. The service was suspended because it wasn't working right. But it will be very, very helpful to have it back.


Washington, D.C.: Metro, as always, cannot communicate.

I was on the Blue line to Franconia this morning and there was some sort of backup that caused our conductor to empty our train. There was no announcement of what was wrong.

After a few minutes, the conductor opened the doors and announced "Blue line to largo town center." Being a veteran metro rider, I knew that this meant the train was turning around but about half the people on the platform got back on the train and went in the opposite direction. This could have been easily avoided simply by saying "This train is turning around"! I waited a few minutes more and ended up just walking the 10 minutes to the King Street station. With no announcements, who knew when we'd be able to get back on the train?

Robert Thomson: That's really unfortunate. Metro recognizes that it has widespread problems with customer communications and in many ways has been doing a better job in recent months.

This is clearly not an example of that. But I've noticed that many train operators are providing clearer and more detailed announcements.


Leesburg, Va.: Dear Dr. Gridlock -

I'm trying to get information on construction on Sycolin Road out in Leesburg, specifically at Gulick Mill Road. I see lots of construction people, vehicles, but I can't find anything telling me what's going on. Help?

Robert Thomson: I'm just looking through some VDOT documents and hoping I've found the right project so I can give you this quick answer.

VDOT has been planning this work: The two unpaved sections of Sycolin Road/Route 643 in Loudoun County will be reconstructed and paved from Goose Creek to the Dulles Greenway and from the Dulles Greenway to the paved section of Sycolin Road.


Silver Spring, Md.: Hi, Any idea why they have made the far right lane on Viers Mill Road right-turn only the entire length from Connecticut Avenue until University Blvd? It seems like a waste of a lane.

Robert Thomson: No, I'm sorry, I don't. But I will check with the State Highway Administration, which is always very helpful in addressing such questions, and I'll post something on my Get There blog.


Alexandria, Va.: Do you or VDOT have any feeling as to how the variable speed limits on the Beltway through Alexandria are working?

From what I can tell, they're really not doing anything. The road backs up so bad, it doesn't matter how low you make the speed limit, no ones going over 10 MPH during afternoon rush. During the weekends and off-peak times, it's mostly ignored, or overly observed because of intesified enforcement, causing unexpected backups.

Additionally, those roadside info signs that are part of the program are useless, especially when half the time they contradict what's on the overhead signs. Many times I've seen those roadside info signs say 5 minute delay when the traffic is backed up from before Eisenhower (takes over 30 minutes when backed up that far). I'd say this program's pretty much a failure so far. Are there any data to suggest the opposite?

Robert Thomson: I think it's still early to judge how this is going to work out. It was only recently that the Wilson Bridge project added daytimes to the Variable Speed Limit program on the Beltway between Springfield and the Wilson Bridge.

I think it's a good experiment in using technology to aid drivers, but it's by no means a guaranteed success. Education and enforcement, enforcement, enforcement are important parts of it. And as you say, with the second worst traffic in the nation, we Washingtonians are perfectly capable of overwhelming any "smart traffic" system.

For everyone who's been through that zone, I'd like to hear more about your experiences. Please write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com. I'm interested in publishing some of your letters, so please include your name and home community for the sign off on the letters. (If you don't want them published, just say so.)


Baltimore: Which Metrorail station has the better parking situation, New Carrollton or Greenbelt? Thanks!

Robert Thomson: Those stations at the end of the Orange Line and the Green Line can both be tough, because they draw travelers from such a wide area of the suburbs not served by Metrorail.

I hate to say one's better than the other. I've found parking at both, but the earlier you get there the better if you're doing a weekday morning commute.


Cleveland Park, D.C.: The random searching of bags on Metro is a huge waste of time and resources. I can't believe that Metro is making this a new priority.

Why now?

Robert Thomson: I'm going to close with this letter, since we're way over our scheduled time, but would like to continue the discussion this week on my Get There blog here on the Web site.

Metro says the bag search program was prompted by continuing concerns about transit security and the upcoming election and inauguration of a new president. It was not prompted by any specific terrorist threat. (See Lena Sun's story. There's a link toward the top of our discussion.)

In the nation's capital, we know we're a potential target -- we've known that for years. We have big events -- including inaugurations -- every year.

I don't believe Metro today has met the test of convincing us that we need to give up our rights to be made safer from a threat that we live with every day.

Thanks everyone, for sticking with me on today's lengthy discussion. Talk to you again in two weeks, but meanwhile, look for more on the Get There blog.


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