In the era before computers, coaxial cables and coffee shops with mega-size cups, white-gloved, arm-waving, whistle-blowing traffic cops were deployed in the District to keep vital intersections clear. For the past 20 years, though, that job has been turned over to traffic signals, leaving drivers to their own devices as to how to extricate themselves from traffic jams. We've learned the hard way that drivers don't always make the best choices.

A case in point was last month's "tractor man" incident. For two days, one disturbed man on the Mall paralyzed the city. As he threatened to detonate a bomb (a bogus threat, it turned out), he was surrounded by snipers, local and federal law officers, bomb experts, media and gawkers. The only one missing from the party was the traffic cop, who might have prevented the blocked intersections that resulted in massive gridlock during four consecutive rush hours.

Frustration with this and other incidents, such as protesters blocking bridges, came across clearly at emergency preparedness hearings on April 10 on Capitol Hill. During those hearings, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) spoke of "federalizing" traffic management.

We're not sure federalizing is necessary, but we sure do need a return to a consistent human presence. Having officers at key intersections during rush hour -- and especially at the sites of fender-benders -- would help the city avoid the kind of mess that the tractor man created.

Traffic officers would provide the judgment and authority to keep traffic moving. Officers can speed traffic flow by gauging the level of lane backup and acting accordingly -- something traffic signals cannot do.

Likewise, traffic officers can prevent drivers from edging into intersections on the yellow or red light and "blocking the box."

Illegal double-parking, which blocks much-needed travel lanes during rush hour, also would be discouraged if drivers knew that a traffic cop would be in the vicinity issuing stiff tickets.

A good place to start would be to make the deployment of traffic officers one of the basic functions of the Metropolitan Police Department, as is the case in Baltimore and many other major cities.

Let's take a look at the resources we'd need, and then let's bring the traffic cop back to the District.

-- Robert Pinkard

-- David Guernsey

co-chair the Greater Washington

Board of Trade's Transportation

and Environment Committee.