For the Fairfax County commuter whose car overheats during the morning rush along Old Keene Mill Road in Springfield, the best hope is that a police helicopter will spot the problem and send along a tow truck.
But, more likely than not, hundreds of other commuters -- and the tow truck -- will get stuck in the traffic tie-up created by the stalled car.
"We see 'em [tow trucks] stuck in traffic all the time," said Walt Starling, the helicopter traffic reporter for WCLY Radio (FM-95). "It's pathetic sometimes."
But relief may be just down the road under a program being fine-tuned by the Fairfax County Police Department that would station about four tow trucks in high-density traffic corridors during rush hours, five days a week, Lt. Col. Alan L. Barbee, deputy chief for administration, said yesterday.
The program would be implemented on a six-month experimental basis beginning next fall, he said.
Currently, one of the 30 or so towing companies under contract to the county that has a truck closest to the breakdown or accident is summoned.
While a police helicopter whirls overhead every day and four to eight motorcyle officers are stationed along the major access roads, "what we haven't had is the ability to get a tow truck quickly to the scene," said Barbee. "Unfortunately, sometimes they're in the same traffic."
Barbee said the department has not selected the specific four problem areas that will be staked out, but he said the likely candidates, in addition to Old Keene Mill Road, are Braddock Road, the Rte. 7-Tysons Corner area and the Merrifield and Seven Corners areas.
"It's going to be something of an art," said Barbee, who added that even the sight of a tow truck will often trigger a traffic tie-up.
"We don't want the rubberneck factor to take effect," said police spokesman Warren R. Carmichael.
To keep that from happening, Barbee said, the trucks probably will be parked on access roads or in shopping center parking lots. And if they sit there for two hours without being used, Barbee said, they would be paid an as yet undetermined availability fee.
According to Carmichael, the concept of the program has been approved by the county and the specifics are being formulated now.
At the end of six months, the program will be evaluated to determine what adjustments are needed.
The problem of traffic tie-ups in a county such as Fairfax is different from rush-hour traffic problems in the District, where traffic is more concentrated and often involves moving illegally parked cars, according to Capt. David Baker, commander of the D.C. police department's traffic enforcement branch.
Baker said that when a D.C. officer observes a parking violation, he or she puts an orange sticker on the back of the car so the tow truck can spot it and keep moving. "We want them constantly moving," he said. "I think it works pretty well."
Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield), whose district includes Old Keene Mill Road, thinks the new Fairfax plan is a great idea.
"Nothing's worse than sitting in a hot car," she said yesterday.