As of now, 511 will be to Maryland traffic reports what 911 has long been to emergency calls.
The State Highway Administration is introducing the newest member of the state's "1-1" family Thursday as it launches its new three-digit phone line for information on highway delays and other up-to-the-minute transportation news.
Marylanders who now press 411 for phone listings and 311 for nonemergency government services will be able to connect with 511 for the latest on traffic-related news, such as crash-related traffic jams, lane-closing roadwork and weather-related delays. Callers can also choose to receive information about the Baltimore and Washington transit systems and flight information from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, said SHA spokeswoman Valerie Burnette Edgar.
Maryland is hardly on the cutting edge in linking up with the national 511 system launched by the Federal Communications Commission in 2000. Burnette Edgar said Virginia, Pennsylvania and many other states had joined up earlier.
"We're one of the last states in the union to do it," she said.
Burnette Edgar said one reason Maryland was slow to migrate to 511 was that it was one of the first to offer Internet-based traffic information. She said the new system offers much of the same information previously displayed on Maryland's CHART website.
At first, most of the road information offered on 511 will be limited to the state highway system and the Maryland Transportation Authority's toll facilities. But Burnette Edgar said that over time, information on county roads will be added to the mix. She said the system has a modular design that will allow new information streams to be added as they become available.
"The vision is that it eventually will really be one-stop shopping," she said. "It's built in a way to be able to easily be upgraded to add other types of information."
In addition to vocal information that can be accessed by traditional phones, the 511 service will transmit video through personal electronic devices.
Burnette Edgar said electronically registered users of the system can customize it so that it automatically provides information on up to six routes they use frequently. The system can also be reached via computer at http://www.MD511.org.
The system will be operated by Rockville-based Telvent under a $4.7 million, five-year contract with the highway agency approved by the Board of Public Works last year.
Burnette Edgar said the system will be of particular importance to out-of-state travelers, many of whom have the systems available where they live. She said visitors to Maryland don't typically know the local roads or which radio stations to tune into for traffic information.
"It's an important feature for tourists," she said. "It certainly will help with long-haul truckers and during snowstorms."
The highway spokeswoman said the 511 system has been tested but may need some "tweaking," particularly with such matters as the correct pronunciation of local place names. She said callers will have the option of pressing 77 — not #77 — to report errors. The system will also take suggestions for corrections through its website.
State highway officials are hoping the new service won't become an incentive to break the state's law against using hand-held cell phones while driving.
"It's a good time to remind Marylanders about the laws restricting hand-held phone use and texting while driving," said acting Highway Administrator Darrell Mobley. "Access 511 before heading out or after pulling over to a safe location."