The desperate search for a missing 2-month-old girl snarled traffic across the region yesterday after the state's first use of its Amber Alert highway warning system apparently frightened and confused motorists.
Traffic experts say electronic messages flashing above major Maryland roads - on the same day that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network appeared to encourage attacks - might have left motorists believing that police were searching for terrorists and not for a missing infant.
"We got word from 911 that people didn't know what Amber Alert meant," said State Highway Administration spokeswoman Valerie Edgar. She said highway officials will meet with state and local police to review the program, which aims to alert the public about missing-children cases.
Amber Alert received its first test after a West Baltimore man, Kenneth Jenkins, 20, told police yesterday morning that one of his twin daughters, A'Shia Monique Jenkins, had just been abducted during a robbery by a man in a white Honda.
State police issued the Amber Alert, a nationwide police code for missing child. Once set in motion, the alert signifies that authorities should disseminate information about the abducted child and any suspects.
About 2 p.m., a cryptic Amber message began flashing across more than 60 state highway signs. It read:
AMBER ALERT CALL 911
WHITE HONDA ACCORD
PARTIAL MD TAG JFK
Together with the apparent bin Laden threat yesterday and the upgrading of the nation's terror alert status last week from yellow to orange, the Amber Alert was apparently mistaken by many motorists for a terrorist warning.
"It is understandable people could think that," said Maj. Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman.
The Amber Alert system is credited with the rescue of at least 34 children nationwide since the program was begun in 1996, after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was kidnapped and killed while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas.
Yesterday, traffic near the signs slowed for miles as motorists tried to decipher the message. Commuters on the Baltimore Beltway during rush hour reported abnormal backups of more than a mile leading up to the alert signs. The snags appeared to clear up beyond the signs.
Local traffic reporters blamed the alerts for the traffic jams.
"They caused backups. They caused confusion. They caused concern," said Bob Marbourg, a veteran traffic reporter for WTOP radio in Washington. "Ditch the Amber Alert business. Our whole news report today is about bin Laden, so everybody has heightened awareness. Then they look up and see 'Amber Alert.' It confused people."
Marbourg said his regular cell phone callers reported delays where they don't usually occur. "They would get to the message sign, and that would be the point where the traffic would break loose," he said.
The agreement between state highway officials and state police calls for an Amber Alert to remain posted for two hours, but yesterday state police asked that it stay in force until 6 p.m., through rush hour.
Traffic on U.S. 50 eastbound out of Washington was backed up for 2 miles as it approached several alert signs.
WBAL radio traffic reporter Dave Sandler said the complexity of the message created the problem. People called him to ask whether there was terrorist activity, he said.
"It was causing a lot of trouble," said Sandler, who has monitored area roads for 17 years. "These signs are for the greater good. I understand why they're there. But the bottom line is, anything people can look at will distract them and cause backups during rush hour. They're just curious."
Edgar said the highway agency might not post the words "Amber Alert" in the future because the term is not readily recognizable.
In August, Maryland joined 30 other states that use Amber Alert systems to help find abducted children.
Shipley said he tried to explain Amber Alert to the public during the summer in an attempt to prevent confusion the first time the alert was issued.
"There has been publicity about what this message is," Shipley said. "But I suppose there has been some time for people to forget what it is."
Yesterday, Baltimore police asked state police to send the alert to four states and Washington.
Baltimore police were alerted about 8:30 a.m., when Jenkins, A'Shia Monique's father, called 911 from a pay phone on Lexington Street in West Baltimore, police said.
Jenkins, who lives in the 2500 block of Francis St., told detectives that he and his twin daughters hailed an unlicensed taxi, known as a hack, near Pennsylvania and West North avenues about 7:45 a.m. He told police he was going to his girlfriend's house to get formula for the babies.
After driving a few blocks, the driver pulled over and pointed a handgun at Jenkins, the father told police.
Jenkins told detectives that he handed over money, then was ordered out of the car and could get only one of the twins before the driver took off.
The father described the car as a white Honda Accord with a partial license tag of JFK or FJK. He said he last saw it heading south on Druid Hill Avenue.
Five hours after Jenkins' call, the abduction message was broadcast on television and radio across Maryland and Washington with a description of the child and the getaway car.
State police said the alert, issued correctly, is the fastest way to get help from the public.
"We want additional eyes out there looking with us," said state police Lt. Bud Frank. "Millions of us are on the roadways and listening to our radios. That broadcast information might spark a sighting that will lead to the recovery of the abducted child."
Sun staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.