Terri Eatinger is new to the area, and she has a question: "I travel [from her home in Alexandria] up to Bethesda Naval Hospital quite frequently with two small children. It has often crossed my mind what I should do if my car breaks down.

"If I pull off and put on my blinkers, how long of a wait should I expect before a police officer comes by? . . . . Could you find out how frequently that area of the Beltway is patrolled for such emergencies? Perhaps you can put my mind at ease."

I have the answers for you, Terri. But your mind may not be eased very much.

I assumed that you were talking about the hunk of Beltway between the Cabin John Bridge and the Wisconsin Avenue interchange in Bethesda. That six-mile stretch is patrolled by two Maryland State Police officers 24 hours a day (meanwhile, stretches of similar size in both Virginia and Maryland are generally assigned the same amount of police patrolpower).

However, Terri, "your" two officers are often pulled off to handle emergencies east of the Wisconsin Avenue exit. So at any one time, there may be two officers along your route -- or one, or none.

Therefore, it's impossible to say how long a wait you can expect. I've heard about 30-second waits. I've heard about two-hour waits.

The police tell me your chances of a fast response are slightly better during the week, during the day and during nonrush hours. Otherwise, Terri, I'm afraid you're in the lap of the gods.

If the deities decide that four other motorists will have flat tires at the same time you do, you'll be in bad shape. If not, you may be pleasantly surprised. Ideas Whose Time Has Come (that continuing series of brilliances from readers without which the world can no longer do):

Helen Secrest of Chevy Chase suggests a television lock. Her conception of it: "Something you can easily attach or connect to each TV in the house, preventing the children from watching when you have told them they may not (e.g. when their homework is not done, or as a punishment for not doing their chores)."

Vincent R. Agnelli of Heathsville, Va., suggests congressional correspondence cards that don't cost citizens a cent. "Every post office in the land should have a supply of preaddressed, stamped post cards or envelopes or both for the congressman of the district which the post office services and for the two senators for that state," Vincent proposes. "Every citizen would then have easy access to their representatives and would be more inclined to express their opinions."

Do you have an IWTHC? Please mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., 20071. Life In This Here Metropolis:

"My husband and I work in the same building, and often get on the same elevator in the mornings," writes Betty Kirk of Silver Spring.

One morning, "their" elevator was much more crowded than usual. But Betty was in such a hurry that she burrowed into the car -- and right up against her husband's chest.

The crushed multitudes immediately began to clear throats, hunch shoulders and furrow brows over Betty's apparent lack of manners. "I felt it incumbent to immediately announce, 'He's my husband!' " Betty reports. There followed "an instant wave of relaxation" aboard ship. Kudos, plaudits, hugs, bouquets . . . .

Thomas W. Guion of Fairfax writes: "Dear Mr. Levey: In your continuing search for an honest man, you need look no farther than to Mr. Robert Gray, who drives a taxi for Autorama.

"Recently, I was carrying an unusually large amount of money for me. Minutes after alighting from Mr. Gray's taxi, I was dismayed to find that my wallet had apparently fallen on the floor of his cab.

"Luckily, he found the billfold, called me at home and arranged to return it to me the next day -- all with the money still intact.

"So, my hat's off to a very honest man, and I would certainly like to see him get credit where credit is due."

I think we just took care of that, Brother Guion. Thanks for a nice story. Who says drivers are unremittingly rude and crude? A Northern Virginia grandmother who's getting up in years writes to say that she has never received so much as a raised eyebrow since she got her vanity license plates.

Little wonder. The plates read:

EZ IM 78