Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I was recently stopped at the light at Hoadly Road and Dale Boulevard in Prince William County.

A mid-size business truck stopped behind me, and its headlights were beaming directly into my mirrors.

I adjusted the rearview mirror, but the side mirrors were also catching the glare.

I don't know if the driver saw me flip my rearview mirror to night vision, but he actually turned his headlights down to just his parking lights and left them that way until the traffic light changed, and we were on our way.

It may seem like a small act of kindness, but I definitely appreciated the thought.

Patti Barry

Manassas

What a nice driver. Wouldn't it be wonderful if others in high vehicles followed his example? I'm glad to know he's out there.

Nearsighted Tailgaters

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I would like to explain to those who complain about tailgaters that they deserve pity because they are so nearsighted. They just don't realize anything is in front of them until they are within a foot of the rear of your vehicle.

Why else would they change from lane to lane when those with normal vision can easily see all lanes are blocked, and the lane they were originally in might have been the fastest anyway?

Bill Hill

Lake Ridge

Thanks for the explanation. I knew there must be a reason.

Not All SUVs the Same

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I read with interest your recent columns with readers decrying the width of sport-utility vehicles.

You may want to note that not all SUVs are monsters that take up more than their share of parking spaces. I have a Jeep Grand Cherokee. It is not as wide as my Corvette (72.3 inches compared to 73.6 inches), or a Ford Taurus, for that matter (73 inches).

On the other hand, you have the behemoths like the Ford Excursion at 79.9 inches.

My point: There are SUVs and there are SUVs.

John Drake

Sterling

Thanks. Good point. But the overwhelming number of complaints about SUVs that I have received dealt with the height of SUVs. People don't like riding behind them because their height blocks a view of the road ahead.

There is more bitterness out there aimed at SUVs than I would have imagined. And it has nothing to do with width.

No 'Smooth' Enforcement

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I have to agree with your other readers that the Smooth Operator law enforcement program is a joke. In response to Christine Hanson's comments [Dr. Gridlock, Dec. 12] about the police doing nothing about reports of aggressive drivers when you call #77 -- I agree 100 percent.

I, too, inquired within the last year why nothing was being done when these reports were received. At the time, my county (Prince William) had a program under which, if you witnessed trash being thrown out of a moving vehicle, you could report the tag and a letter would be sent to the owner's home.

Why couldn't the same program be implemented for aggressive driving, I asked. I was told that:

1) It would be too much administrative work.

2) There is no one to staff the telephone line that would be necessary to take the angry calls from residents who receive the letters.

So, we can have the police contact drivers about garbage but not about life-endangering behavior. How's that for priorities?

Jennifer Dunleavy

Fairfax City

Police say voluntary compliance is the only way to bring traffic violations under control. But that doesn't work without a strong law enforcement component. Drivers need to see violators pulled over.

I'd settle for seeing more people pulled over than officers talking with each other in the interstate median strips and in parking lots.

Escalating Woes

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Recently, I prepared to exit the L'Enfant Metro station (Department of Transportation exit), when I found three recently refurbished escalators out of service.

Customers were expected to struggle up a four-story set of stairs.

What is going on with the poorly repaired escalators?

Jesse Winston

Washington

You've every right to know, Mr. Winston. The sad fact is that Metro is the most escalator-dependent subway system in the world, and system officials never have been able to keep them running reliably.

Here's a report of Metro's latest efforts, as summarized nicely by spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein:

In the middle of 2002, Metro's chief executive, Richard White, appointed a blue ribbon panel of outside experts to figure out what's wrong with Metro's escalators and elevators. This panel was to report to White by the end of 2002.

In early December, White briefed Metro's elevator and escalator mechanics on the panel's findings, which were about to be released.

During the briefing, ideas were brought up by the mechanics that had never been considered. "They had some very positive ideas on what Metro could do to improve elevator and escalator performance for our customers, using in-house capabilities," Farbstein said.

Afterward, White committed to a three-month process of working with the mechanics to listen to their ideas and suggestions and iron out how some of their recommendations might work with those of the blue ribbon panel.

In March, White will present a plan that includes a combination of recommendations from the blue ribbon panel and the "blue collar" panel, Farbstein said.

"While this may seem like a lengthy process, let me assure you that it is because Metro is serious about sound, workable solutions to the vertical transportation problems," Farbstein said.

I have a couple of observations about this process:

1. How can a blue ribbon panel take months to study the problem without including the suggestions of the mechanics?

2. How could Metro management not know about these suggestions long ago? If you're dealing with a train wreck, don't you talk to the mechanics?

I'm going to file these questions along with enduring ones, such as why Metro built an escalator system exposed to the rain, snow and ice; continue to receive e-mails from frustrated customers such as Mr. Winston; and hope that this latest effort to fix the problem will bring improvement.

How to Get Help Mary Curtis of Dayton in Howard County recently had the misfortune to sustain a flat tire and transmission fluid leak when she struck a basketball-size rock on the Beltway during morning rush hour.

Ms. Curtis is miffed that AAA could not respond to her for at least 2 hours and 40 minutes (her husband eventually came to the rescue).

She has several questions for me:

"Why doesn't the AAA tell its members to expect two-hour delays to respond to a call when they join?"

I've had AAA respond in less than two hours; it depends a lot on time of day and weather conditions. A call for help on the Beltway during morning rush hour could easily take two hours.

"What alternatives are available? Do you call 911?"

No. That is generally for more severe emergencies. You might try #77 on a cellular phone. Passersby are generally pretty good about reporting disabled vehicles to police using that number.

"I regularly drive from Maryland through the District to Virginia and I don't know who to call for help in all these areas."

You might look in the Yellow Pages to find some towing companies in the areas that you travel; make a list and keep it in your glove compartment. Also, if you're dissatisfied with AAA, there are other auto clubs that offer roadside service. Sears and Shell come to mind.

Getting stuck on the Beltway in rush hour is no picnic. I welcome reader suggestions.

Can't Handle the Growth The following letter and response might resonate with those who worry that runaway development is clogging our roads with traffic.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

You wrote on Nov. 7 that "development should be dependent upon building adequate transportation infrastructure to accommodate the growth. Just a thought."

Montgomery County already has this law. It states that development shall be limited to what the infrastructure can handle, and that includes roadways.

However, Montgomery County government routinely ignores this stipulation in order to accommodate increased development. (1)

In other cases, the county simply changed the legal definition of "traffic congestion" so that more vehicles per hour are allowed on the roads before they are legally considered "at capacity." (2)

This should surprise no one, but it does. Why? Most newspapers, including The Washington Post, seldom report on such "mundane" issues as zoning changes and transportation committee meetings. It is at such "mundane" meetings that politicians appease developers with huge tax breaks and zoning changes. The public is left with unpaid bills and clogged roads.

We get what we deserve.

Supporting information:

(1) Best example: the huge Rock Springs development at Old Georgetown Road and Interstate 270. Both roads, as well as Interstate 495, were horribly congested, well in excess even of the county's own loosened definition of congestion (or "capacity").

What did the county do? In exchange for a new interchange with I-270, including ramps leading to a highway that was already legally congested, they allowed this development after several token changes to the plan.

Among these changes was a grossly erroneous assumption: that a huge portion of the thousands of people employed in this new development would live in the same development. History has never borne out this assumption, but the issue was enough to confuse the public, bore the press and allow the development to proceed.

(2) In the 1990s, with many roads already crowded 16 hours a day and well over their traffic capacity, the county was already unable to keep up with runaway development. So, rather than fix the problem, Montgomery County systematically changed the definition of "traffic problem." Magically, most of these roads were no longer deemed to be a problem, though anyone actually stuck in traffic would tell you otherwise.

Doug Viner

Kensington

Thank you for a strong letter. I disagree with this part: I don't think the residents of Montgomery County deserve this.

If the politicians have sold out the transportation network to developers, why haven't some slow growth or sensible growth candidates emerged at election time, and why haven't the incumbents been swept out of office?

For whatever reason, my experience with Montgomery County roads is that they are the most traffic-choked in the area. I try not to go there. Montrose Road, Rockville Pike, ugh. The Beltway interchange with Georgia Avenue is the most congested interchange in Maryland. Wonder why.

I'd like to say this is the consequence of one political party dominating local affairs, but I can't. It happens under Republican control, too.

Look across the river for the same problems. The residents of Loudoun County got rid of pro-development supervisors, although with thousands of approved homes still in the pipeline, it may be too late for that county's roads. The state has no funded improvements for the major roads serving this growth -- Routes 50, 15 and 7, the Dulles Toll Road and Interstate 66.

In Fairfax County, on a huge chunk of land bounded by I-66, the Fairfax County Parkway and Route 29, the trees have disappeared and are being replaced by acres and acres of townhouses. We're talking about thousands more vehicles on roads already clogged with traffic.

Meanwhile, there are no state improvements funded for the roads -- I-66, Route 29 and the Fairfax County Parkway -- that serve this new development. Seems mildly insane to me.

I'm beginning to compare developers with movie people. Both groups come into town and are greeted by local officials who bend over backward to accommodate them, regardless of negative consequences to residents. Want a street blocked for your cameras? Sure. Want a farm rezoned for townhouses? Sure. The difference is, the movie people leave.

What do you folks think?

Transportation researcher Diane Mattingly contributed to this column.

Dr. Gridlock appears Sunday in the Metro section and Thursday in Prince William Extra. You can write to Dr. Gridlock, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. He prefers to receive e-mail, at drgridlock@washpost.com, or faxes, at 703-352-3908. Please include your full name, town, county and day and evening phone numbers. Dr. Gridlock cannot take phone calls.