Inner or outer loop? Motorists driven to distraction State posts signs on Beltway to distinguish road's circles


As if Baltimore's Beltway weren't loopy enough.

Over the past two months, state highway crews have erected a dozen signs under selected Interstate 695 route markers with the designation of "Inner Loop" or "Outer Loop."

The signs are supposed to help motorists figure out which way they're headed on the busy interstate. The inner loop designates the interior circle of the divided highway, the outer loop the outside half.

But, after posting the signs, the State Highway Administration began to realize that a lot of drivers don't understand what the heck this inner and outer loop stuff means.

"The majority of people have no idea whether they're on the inner or the outer," said Phil Pesing, manager of Jim Elliott's Towing. "I know which is which and my drivers know, but usually the people with the broken-down vehicles, they don't know."

In the past, directions on the Beltway were generally referred to by a major compass point (east, west, north or south) and a major destination such as Glen Burnie, Towson, Pikesville or Essex.

Radio and television traffic reporters took a different tack, however. They simplified their descriptions to inner and outer loops.

The loops are easily differentiated if you're in a helicopter or airplane and you can use the downtown high-rises or the harbor as a landmark. "Expect a slowdown as you near a traffic accident on the inner loop at Wilkens Avenue," is a typical description.

"It just makes sense," said Charlie Weirauch, assistant director of operations for Metro Traffic Control, a private firm that provides traffic reports to 27 broadcast stations in the Baltimore and Annapolis area. "Generally, the Beltway is two big circles. The terms inner loop and outer loop have been in usage a long time."

But it's not as easy to tell whether you're on the inner or outer loop when you're on the ground.

The trip from Towson to Parkville, for instance, looks like any stretch of highway. It's hard to tell if you're going clockwise on the inner loop or counterclockwise on the outer.

Last year, the State Highway Administration posted inner loop and outer loop signs along the Maryland portion of the Washington Beltway and called it a success.

"We thought we'd try it in Baltimore," said Darrell A. Wiles, a highway administration assistant engineer for traffic in the Baltimore region. "It's not reasonable to expect it to mean anything to anyone from New York or anything, but we thought it could be helpful."

Highway officials theorize that Baltimore motorists haven't taken tothe signs, in part, because they are not as Beltway-conscious as are motorists in the traffic-clogged nation's capital.

"It's like the signs on the Maryland state line, 'Please Drive Gently,' " said Barry R. King, chief of traffic management for the highway administration. "What the heck does that mean? I'm afraid that's lost on a lot of people."

Still, state highway officials have no intention of taking down the vTC signs. They still may help people understand traffic reports on the radio.

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