In the beginning was the fender-bender.
A two-car collision Feb. 15, which sent both vehicles to the shoulder of northbound Interstate 95 near Chesaco Avenue, seemed to intrigue an elderly couple driving in the middle lane.
They slowed to rubberneck, and "a lady from New Jersey ran into the back of them," said Troy Duncan, a 27-year-old State Highway Administration employee who was helping to clean up after the first accident. "And then this Florida couple ran into the back of her," he added, shaking his head.
All of which begat a tie-up, more gawkers and one hellacious mess.
An October 1990 study by a national trucking group reported that 61 percent of all urban freeway congestion is triggered by what traffic engineers delicately term "incidents" -- everything from major accidents to maintenance work to cars stranded on the shoulder. A minority of delays, the study found, result from the most obvious problem: too many cars crowded on too few lanes of highway.
As construction of new roads grows more expensive and harder to sell to communities in their path, states are eagerly searching for ways to move more cars along existing pavement. So "inci
dent management programs," in place in California and Illinois for decades, have suddenly become popular, with at least seven states launching programs in the past few years.
In 1989, Maryland's SHA and state police crafted their own program, which today has a budget of just $200,000, 12 full-time employees and uses mostly surplus or borrowed equipment. Barry R. King, the lanky, workaholic assistant deputy chief at the state's Office of Traffic, conceded that the state was running its current program "on a shoestring." Given the state Department of Transportation's budget problems, he added, more money may be hard to find.
But he talked optimistically about someday creating a system that includes a network of regional traffic command posts, more and bigger tow trucks and state-of-the-art communications.
The state, he predicted, will one day use embedded sensors, remote television cameras and other electronics to monitor traffic levels on every section of the interstate highway system 24 hours a day. That data would then be translated into television maps continuously broadcast to homes, offices and stores -- a sort of CNN for commuters.
Meanwhile, the SHA and state police have stitched together their communications and maintenance networks in a four-part strategy to keep traffic moving. Their aim is to:
* Detect delays and collisions more quickly. Since June 1989, SHA Traffic Operations Centers have opened in the state police barracks in College Park and Woodlawn. The centers, essentially radio rooms located in a room with sliding windows adjacent to state police dispatchers, gather information about the location and nature of problems from state police and SHA workers.
* Better inform motorists about alternate routes and detours. The traffic centers warn motorists of trouble via a system of 20 remote-controlled, variable-message signs at fixed locations and a similar network of 20 short-range traveler's advisory radio stations, broadcasting at 830 on the AM dial.
* Reopen lanes after accidents as fast as possible without jeopardizing safety.
Like circuit-riding preachers spreading the gospel, Mr. King and the state police co-director of the incident management program, Lt. C. D. Tyler, have been visiting police and fire headquarters across Maryland. "We've gone out to tell them that it was no longer acceptable to have 17 fire engines blocking the Beltway for a single-car accident," Mr. King said.
Firefighters once protective of their authority at the scene of emergencies now say they'd like to have more SHA accident-clearing equipment for rural areas, said Thomas A. Mattingly of Leonardtown, president of the Maryland State Firemen's Association. "Everybody understands everybody else's role."
Today, when there is a major accident on an interstate, the SHA dispatches a front-end loader and a truck full of sand. The sand is used to soak up any spilled diesel fuel or other chemicals. The front-end loader is used to push large vehicles -- such as tractor-trailers -- off the highway, if its owners can't remove it in a "reasonable" time.
Drivers sometimes object, saying their equipment or cargo will be damaged. "We're going to handle that cargo as delicately as possible," Mr. King said. "But we're going to get [it] off the road."
* Speed the removal of stalled cars from the beltways. Each traffic center directs a small fleet of yellow SHA tow trucks and vans that cruise four sections of the Baltimore Beltway and five sections of Maryland's share of the Washington Beltway during rush hours.
The cruising tow-trucks report stalled cars, accidents or other trouble; aid stuck motorists with a battery jump or gallon of gas; tow cars free of charge to the nearest off-ramp, where private tow trucks take over; and help direct traffic.
Is incident management worth the effort?
Traffic-choked Los Angeles, which has had a incident-management program since the early 1970s, recently decided to expand it by launching emergency patrols, usually called "courtesy patrols." In Chicago, which has the nation's oldest program, officials calculate that they save $17 in "congestion" costs -- essentially wasted fuel and motorists' time -- for every $1 spent on incident management.
As for Maryland's efforts so far, not everyone sees things getting better.
David Sandler, who flies over the Baltimore area reporting on traffic tie-ups for WBAL-AM radio, said he had not noticed any speedup in the cleaning up of accidents. "I've seen things [accidents] that I can't believe how fast they clear it, and other times where they seem to sit there forever," he said.
SHA officials concede there are no statistics yet measuring the success of the program. But they say they think significant progress has been made, citing anecdotal reports from state police highway units, from SHA workers and more than 100 letters of thanks from motorists helped by the emergency patrols.
A lot of beltway drivers, Mr. King said, see "improvements that they can't put their fingers on. It's this program."