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Rush-hour rangers follow traffic, don't miss a jam


They are our "eyes in the skies," our rush-hour rangers, our traveling traffic troopers.

They are the men and women on radio and television who provide us with breathless up-to-the-minute-and-on-the-scene update on the latest accidents, construction hazards, traffic slowdowns or Beltway tie-ups.

They talk colorfully, and they talk fast.

It's not surprising that Metro Traffic Control's Jim Epperlein is as likely to consult a thesaurus between reports as he is police and fire dispatchers.

A lane isn't simply shut down by construction; it's "closed by cones." (He has a weakness for alliteration). The veteran traffic reporter's broadcasts are peppered with such traffic-speak. His rapid-fire monologue features loops, both inner and outer, bottlenecks, snarls, slowdowns, bunches and crunches.

Broadcasting 70 traffic reports a day over 12 radio stations, WJZ-TV, and even a cellular telephone service for Metro Traffic Control, Mr. Epperlein says business couldn't be better.

Ditto for fellow traffic reporters like "Detour" Dave Sandler, a fixture at WBAL-AM and TV, as well as 98Rock, and Robert Altman of WPOC-FM.

"People want to be informed about traffic, even if it's a reassurance that there aren't any problems," says Mr. Sandler. "It's up there with news and weather.

Don't ask me to explain why."

Bumper-to-bumper banter Over the past five years, there has been a boom in interest in traffic news. Metro Traffic Control provides 2,000 reports a week to 26 stations in the Baltimore area. The service is provided in exchange for commercial air time.

Messrs Sandler and Altman are the only local traffic reporters independent of Metro Traffic Control, which employs 11 anchors. Founded in Baltimore in 1978 by David Saperstein, Metro is now the largest provider of traffic information in the country, operating in 45 cities throughout the United States.

But its competitors point out that bigger isn't always better. They all use the same sources: scanners that monitor police and fire channels, reports from the state's traffic operations center, and the telephone. Mr. Sandler works from a plane in good weather. Metro has two.

What is most remarkable is that 13 people can make a living talking about traffic in front of a microphone.

Baltimore does not have the traffic congestion of neighboring Washington. In fact, studies have shown it has a lighter rush hour than most of the cities in the northeast. Weekdays in August bring an especially mild rush hour because so many of us are on vacation.

"It's amazing that traffic reporting has gotten so big," says Mr. Altman, a former reporter on the now-defunct Traffic Team service. "You get the same backups every day."

A bright sunny morning? Give yourself some extra time on the west side of the Beltway and the Jones Falls Expressway because of the glare. Sound familiar?

Reporters have their moments The Intrepid Commuter has had his butt saved more than once a traffic report. If you're very lucky, you'll hear about an accident on your car radio before you get stuck in the back-up it causes.

Catastrophes like overturned tractor-trailers, chemical spills, and accidents in the harbor tunnels are when traffic reporters really earn their keep -- "maybe 10 percent of the time," Mr. Sandler says.

Roads are bound to become more congested by traffic in the years ahead. Using them more efficiently, with as much information as possible, is bound to help.

The federal government is spending millions of dollars studying alternatives for Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems where information about traffic conditions could be broadcast directly to computers on board cars and trucks.

Free reports on the car radio may not be technologically sophisticated but they seem to do the job.

"These people know what they're doing," says Barry R. King, the State Highway Administration's chief of traffic management. "I think all the reporting systems tend to be pretty well up to speed with what's going on."

Sandler's Rush-hour worst 1. The outer loop of the Baltimore Beltway between Woodlawn and Catonsville. "Number one -- that's no question. It'll always be on the traffic report." Not enough lanes for too much traffic.

2. The outer loop between Parkville and Towson (Bel Air Road to Providence Road). "Every morning, it's something."

3. Southbound Interstate 95 from White Marsh Boulevard to the I-95/I-895 split. "It's been a road construction zone forever."

Keep in touch

Write to the Intrepid Commuter, c/o the Baltimore Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore 21278. Please include your name and telephone number so we can reach you if we have any questions.

Or use your Touch-Tone phone to call Sundial, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at 783-1800, and enter Ext. 4305. Call 268-7736 in Anne Arundel County.

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