Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I've often been confounded as to why it is so difficult for drivers to grasp the concept, and the law, that requires them to turn on their headlights when their windshield wipers are in use.

I have seen quite a bit of this lately, but what I saw this week during rainy mornings and evenings bothered me even more.

On three separate occasions, when I was driving in the rain and therefore needed to have my headlights on, I observed three Arlington police vehicles driving on Route 50 without their headlights.

Do the police think they are simply above the law? Or are they as lackadaisical and oblivious as the average driver?

Lauryne Wright

Falls Church

I asked Matthew Martin, spokesman for the Arlington County Police Department, and he said marked cruisers not responding to an emergency with lights and siren are required to obey all traffic laws. "They should have had their headlights on," he said.

If you wish to complain to the police, get the four-digit car number on the front bumper, or the license plate number, call 703-558-2222 and ask for a supervisor. Or, log on to www.arlingtonva.us/police. There is a place for "complaints or compliments," Martin said.

All police drivers need to remember that they are rolling advertisements for their department, and other motorists are scrutinizing them.

Reporting a Drinking Driver

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

This episode occurred a couple of weeks ago, but it's been bugging me, so I'm writing to you for advice.

While getting into my car in the Bradlee Shopping Center (Alexandria) parking lot, I noticed that the driver of the van next to me was pouring a pint of vodka into a quart bottle of orange juice.

I moved my car and called information for a nonemergency police number. I reached the Alexandria Sheriff's Office, and as soon as I started to describe what was happening, they said I needed to talk to the police. While I was on hold, the other driver continued to consume and make fresh screwdrivers. After a few minutes, the Alexandria dispatcher asked if I had an emergency. I said "no." I was put back on hold.

The van pulled out and had crossed King Street into Fairlington by the time the Alexandria operator got back on. I was following the van in a very low-speed, 15-mph chase.

I explained the situation, but since we were now in Arlington, I was transferred to the Arlington police.

After a few more minutes, by which time the van was heading back toward the Alexandria border, Arlington picked up the phone. The dispatcher kept interrupting me each time I tried to tell her the location, incident, direction of travel and plate number.

And when the van turned back into Alexandria, I said goodbye to the police and headed home.

Questions: Should I have called 911? Is there another number to call to report incidents like this quickly? Can't one jurisdiction take information and pass it on to another one?

P.S.: The van had Maryland plates and a "Support Our State Troopers" bumper sticker.

Michael A. Bobrik

Arlington

I doubt state troopers want that kind of support. "Anybody who is mixing screwdrivers behind the wheel is on his way to posing a danger to the public," said Matthew Martin, spokesman for the Arlington police. He says you can report the person by calling 911 or the main police dispatch number, 703-558-2222. Both incoming calls go to the same place, although 911 calls are given priority, he says.

"Sounds like in this case, the driver was moving too quickly between jurisdictions," Martin said. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Arlington police can quickly contact police in other jurisdictions through radio frequencies, he said.

Also, I don't get any sense from your letter how this person was driving and the immediate danger he might have posed to the public. If he's driving on the wrong side of the road, I say lean on 911.

I salute your conscientiousness, Mr. Bobrik, but don't know what else to tell you.

School Zones

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I reside in Northern Virginia and am curious as to why, whenever I slow for flashing lights at a school zone, there never seems to be another sign down the road to advise when I can resume normal speed.

The only way that I am aware that I have passed through this reduced-speed zone is to scan the other side of the roadway for the corresponding sign that is advising drivers of the reduced speed in the opposite lanes, and that, of course, means I have to momentarily shift my view from the road before me -- an unnecessary and seemingly dangerous maneuver!

John Mileo

Ashburn

Some schools have such signs and some don't. The reason is this: The school systems set up the notification to slow for school zone signs, but VDOT is responsible for posting the "end" signs and it does so only if the school system requests it, according to Ryan Hall, a VDOT spokesman.

With such a patchwork system, it's no wonder you aren't seeing the end signs. In a better world, each school zone would have them.

P.S.: According to Hall, you cannot be cited for speeding through a school zone if the zone does not have the sign designating the end.

Delay Advisories Unreliable

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

How does VDOT get the information for its electronic signs warning of delays on Interstate 66? I travel daily along this road and quite often I am advised of delays that either don't exist when I get there or are in a different place.

I would like to depend on the signs for help, but they are too unreliable. Any ideas?

David Isaacson

Ashburn

During a recent chat on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline, 80 percent of the respondents in a poll said they found the electronic messaging signs useless.

VDOT spokesman Ryan Hall says the information basically is obtained from 120 cameras the agency has positioned on all Northern Virginia interstate highways.

If you'd like to visit the Traffic Management Center in Arlington, the brains of this operation, let me know and maybe we can set up a group tour with Dr. Gridlock.

Teaching Teen Drivers

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

In your April 25 column, you suggest a one- to two-year training program for teenage drivers.

Many of the specific driving drills that you suggest are already included in a Virginia Department of Education booklet, "40-Hour Parent/Teen Driving Guide."

If one conscientiously follows this program, the teen driver undertakes 10 hours of practice driving in a parking lot before driving out on a street.

Victor J. Slabinski

Arlington

Thanks for the tip. Another reader suggests you can find out more about the VDOE booklet through this Web site: www.pen.k12.va.us./VDOE/Instruction/PE/40hour.pdf.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

You have asked for suggestions on what to add to the driver's education curriculum. I have three to add to your list.

1. Proper use and adjustment of mirrors. I have taught my kids to constantly be aware of what is around them -- front, sides and rear -- and to check the mirrors every several seconds or so.

In an emergency reaction situation, you need to know immediately if the adjacent lane is clear or whether someone is behind you.

2. Slower drivers move right. That simple concept works great in Europe. Left lanes are for passing and for faster vehicles. There is nothing more aggravating than pulling up behind two slow vehicles driving side by side that insist on building up a "parade" behind them.

The courteous thing to do would be to move ahead to create a gap for faster traffic to pass -- or just move to the center or right lane. Those types of drivers just don't get it. They are not making a safer situation; they are actually creating a hazard.

3. When given a fork in the road -- pick one! The number of times I have seen indecisive drivers freeze on the road when faced with a left or right road split decision is unbelievable.

Rather than pick one direction, they slow down to a complete stop and create a dangerous situation for everyone following. That happens very suddenly and generally results in a rear-end accident about eight to 10 cars back. Then the driver goes on his/her oblivious way -- not realizing that he/she has caused a lot of grief and damage.

Charles L. Gallion Jr.

Woodbridge

Thanks for adding to the training list.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

In your April 25 column, you asked about a good driving school.

I am 15 and just finished taking driver's education from the Allegany Driving School, which offers classes in Frederick and Montgomery counties. The class was held within walking distance of my high school and seemed to fulfill the state requirements.

We did not waste classroom time by starting late or ending early. We were in the classroom for three hours, twice a week, for five weeks. The content of the class was basic, but it was thorough enough to allow us to pass the final written state exam.

On the scheduled driving day, the instructor would meet the student at the high school with the driving school's car.

If the student could not schedule a time for driving during the five weeks, the instructor would let him or her schedule driving after the whole course had ended and a new session had begun.

The instructor made sure that everyone went driving with him for the required six hours and passed the driving portion of the class.

Nobody was allowed to get away with missing driving days, and if they did, they had to pay the instructor $40 for the time that he spent waiting for them.

For a class that cost my parents $280, it was not bad. Some days the classroom lesson was boring, but the driving portion was practical and included a variety of situations, from rural roads to highways and the narrow one-way streets of downtown Frederick.

Overall, I learned the basics of driving during the course. Now, my parents will continue to be the primary teachers.

To add to your list of things that need to be practiced, I suggest: busy traffic circles, Bay Bridge toll booths, crossing the Bay Bridge, and crossing narrow, single-lane covered bridges.

Thank you for writing your column each week.

Christa Allen

Thurmont

Thank you for writing, Christa, and for adding those valuable tips to our list.

Transportation researcher Diane Mattingly contributed to this column.

Dr. Gridlock appears Sunday in the Metro section and Thursday in 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.