With 511 phone system, drivers could get, give useful traffic information quickly


There is nothing more upsetting than being caught in a backup and tuning in to the traffic report, only to hear mentioned every incident but the one apparently causing the backup I'm in.

If, like me, you want to inform your favorite radio station about the backup so it will be mentioned in the next traffic report, you might be driving in the dark - most motorists don't have radio stations' toll-free traffic hot lines memorized or the numbers on their cell phone's speed dial. As Mark Middlebusher noted, "I don't have the time to search and call the right number when I see something that could cause congestion."

He would like a 511 number implemented for our area.

Assigned in 2000 by the Federal Communications Commission, the expectation was that motorists would call 511 to receive - and perhaps provide - more route-specific information than most radio stations' 30-second traffic reports offer, and they wouldn't have to wait every 10 minutes or so to hear it.

Where is Maryland's 511? Despite the more than 300 travel information telephone numbers that have sprung up across the country over the past 10 years to deliver real-time traffic information, Maryland still lacks such a number.

However, State Highway Administration spokesman David Buck noted that there are several studies under way: one in Northern Virginia for the national capital region 511, one for a Maryland statewide 511 and one for a Baltimore region 511. Buck cautioned, however, that implementing 511 in Maryland would require additional funding that is not under consideration. For 511 to happen, Buck said, "It is likely we will look at the potential of teaming up with private industry partners."

But the challenges extend beyond funding issues, Buck said. "The national and local challenge with 511 is the real-time database that an interactive voice recording system must link to for the system to provide useful info," he said. The database must include not only roadway information, but also mass transportation and airport information, involving a huge data collection and data fusion effort across several jurisdictions and agencies.

But such a broad effort is necessary for 511 to fulfill its promise. "For 511 to be successful, we must have reliable, accurate, timely info so the public will use it and, more importantly, trust it," Buck said.

But Maryland is not without up-to-date traffic information - and in fact, as noted in last week's column, SHA provides this information to local radio and TV stations so that motorists can stay informed. SHA's 24 hour-a-day Statewide Operations Center near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport monitors traffic on hundreds of miles of interstates via cameras and speed detectors, but it is not equipped to handle the hundreds or thousands of calls that might result from motorists reporting crashes and delays.

"Since SHA is currently notified of incidents within minutes [and sometimes seconds], the current manually operated system functions extremely efficiently with our staff of highway operations technicians," Buck said. "Generally, as soon as anything occurs, folks are on their cell phones to #77 or 911, and SHA is aware very, very quickly." The quick sharing of information is facilitated by the proximity of the traffic centers to state police barracks.

Use # 77 to report emergencies. Dialing this on a cell phone will send the call to the closest state police barracks.

Parking-lot etiquette

If motorists are expected to drive on the right side of the road, why don't they drive on the right in parking lot aisles? That's what Ed Fagan wondered last week.

"People driving in parking lots often seem to act as if they own the entire lot! Two-way lanes, although unmarked by a center dividing line, are routinely hogged by vehicles driving up the center toward me as I am driving on the right side of the lane," he complained.

Then there are those who will crisscross all over the lot, jutting from one lane diagonally over parking spaces to the next lane or even again over to the next lane after that one, he noted. "Not long ago, at a huge [shopping center] parking lot, there was a woman who did this, in a wide-open lot where there were no cars for about a hundred yards around us. She headed straight at me diagonally, refusing to yield! Had I not stopped she would have hit me, and I was merely driving up a lane at slow speed," he said.

Mr. Fagan asked that Traffic Talk help educate drivers on parking-lot etiquette.

Among the rules he suggested, "Even where there are no center dividing lines, parking lanes should be treated as two-way traffic, where we drive on the right side, not up the middle, and never on the left side."

What egregious breaches of parking lot etiquette have you seen? And what rules would you suggest to gently correct these courtesy-challenged drivers?

What is your driving dilemma? Contact Jody K. Vilschick at TrafficTalk@comcast.net, send faxes to 410-715-2816 or mail letters to Traffic Talk, The Sun in Howard County, 30 Corporate Center, 10440 Little Patuxent Parkway, Suite 820, Columbia, 21044. Include your full name and contact information, or your comments will not be published or receive a response.

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