A morning commuter driving to Baltimore on Interstate 70 passes an electronic sign in western Howard County. It says the expected travel time to the Beltway is 30 to 40 minutes - three times longer than usual.
Thanks to the sign, the driver has options. He or she can exit at U.S. 40 or take one of several other alternate routes.
Five signs, installed last week by the State Highway Administration between Mount Airy and the Beltway along I-70, are part of a $310,000 pilot project aimed at providing motorists with up-to-the-minute information on the road conditions ahead.
David Buck, an SHA spokesman, said the project is the first use of the technology in Maryland - though not the first in the country. He said the test, jointly funded with the Federal Highway Administration, will help determine whether the system will be useful in other busy traffic corridors.
Buck said the system is a step beyond the type of mobile message boards currently in widespread use to alert motorists to an accident or construction ahead.
"It's more specific. It's more timely. It's far more accurate," he said.
Buck said the information gathered by the system is being shared with the Maryland Center for Advanced Transportation Technology of the University of Maryland, College Park, which will analyze the collected data.
If the system is effective and well-received, Buck said, it could be introduced to other corridors, such as Interstates 95, 83 and 795.
The system uses 10 sensors interspersed along a 20-mile stretch of 1-70 to gauge traffic speed and volume. The sensors communicate with the five message boards, which are linked together by microwave signals, Buck said.
Buck said I-70 was chosen for the test because it is a fairly straight route with available alternate routes and a logical ending point. "You need roads that have a terminus, if you will," he said. "It would be tough to do it on the Beltway" because it is, in effect, a circle.
Buck acknowledged that the last of the five signs a motorist would pass heading east from Frederick would not provide any alternate routes because it is in the long exit-less stretch between U.S. 29 and I-695.
"There's not a whole lot you can do at that point," he said.
Nevertheless, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Amanda Knittle said she sees potential value in the project.
"The more motorists are informed, the less likely you are to have road rage," she said. "You don't feel as out of control if you have any idea of an estimated time frame."
One situation in which the pilot system might not be useful is when the roadway is shut down entirely by a serious accident. "It won't know why things are at a complete standstill," said SHA spokeswoman Valerie Burnette Edgar.
For estimates on how long it might take to clear an accident, she said, motorists might need to rely on old-fashioned radio traffic reports.
In any case, motorists along I-70 should not become too used to the new service. The current test will last only through late July, when it is expected to be taken out of operation until UM researchers can analyze its effectiveness.