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Safety should be paramount in ICC

The Baltimore Sun

There are compelling reasons to build the Intercounty Connector and compelling reasons not to build it. I'm staying neutral on that issue. But let's assume the courts uphold the decision to complete the 18.8-mile toll road through the Washington suburbs.

In that case, there is no excuse if Maryland officials fail to make it the safest, smartest, most speed-controlled road on this planet.

Here's why:

First, one of the justifications the Ehrlich administration gave for cutting down all those trees and pouring all that concrete was that the alternate routes were unsafe. So there would seem to be a moral obligation to make the ICC -- now in the design process -- the safest road possible.

The second reason is political. Gov. Martin O'Malley is annoying an important segment of his base by carrying through with former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan to build the road. But some of the same people who care about the environment also care about issues such as highway safety. By putting his own stamp on the ICC, the governor could at least tell supporters he built a road that will save lives. The trout in Paint Branch would at least not have died in vain.

Third, the ICC is being billed as a highway that will avoid congestion by charging tolls just high enough to make sure that a sufficient segment of the driving population chooses to save a few bucks by taking another route. That creates an implied contract with those who use the road that Maryland will deliver a congestion-free ride -- or at least do its best to do so.

Presumably, a good toll-setting mechanism can regulate the demand side well enough to keep traffic flowing. But all it takes is a little moronic driver behavior to cause a crash that can close the highway -- at least in one direction -- for hours.

Obviously, there's nothing the road's builders can do that will make it 100 percent crash-free. But they should be able to cut the number of accidents to a minimum by building law enforcement technology into the road itself.

Here's how. You know those electronic devices that collect the tolls? They can also be used for point-to-point speed limit enforcement.

Let's say the computerized camera sees you get on the ICC at its eastern entry point at 2:30:15 p.m. and arrive at the western terminus at 2:42:30. You've just traveled 18.8 miles in 12 minutes and 15 seconds. The same system that collects your toll can send you a big fat ticket to reflect the fact you tooled down the highway at about 90 mph.

Even before the road opens, the state could launch a public education campaign to brand the ICC as a zero-tolerance road for speeders. (In practice you could give folks a 5 mph cushion.)

Then officials could address one of the biggest follies of Maryland motorists: driving too fast for conditions. Instead of static 20th-century speed signs, state officials could install electronic variable speed limit signs that precisely reflect the level of traffic, weather conditions and time of day. It's an emerging technology that's being used in other parts of the world.

Dry, sunny and uncrowded? Let 'em go 72 mph in the straightaways. Rain at 6 p.m. in November? 52 mph. Snowing after dark? 35 mph. Let the sensors and algorithms decide.

Meanwhile, the ICC's designers could address other driver misbehavior through a high-tech camera system tied into a computer program that could analyze the movements of specific vehicles.

A guy gets on at Shady Grove and starts weaving from lane to lane. The cameras pick up the vehicle's movements and report them to the central computer, which sends an alert to the police that a white SUV with Maryland tags should be observed by an officer. If the officer verified the erratic lane changes, the driver is pulled over and given a field sobriety test. Quickly, the word gets around that ICC stands for "I'm Caught and Convicted."

That's not all. That same camera system could be programmed to pick up instances where one vehicle rides the bumper of another, which generates a ticket for following too closely. Can you imagine it? A highway where nobody dares to tailgate? Or switch lanes without signaling? Or cut other drivers off? People will come from California and pay the toll just to drive on such a road.

There's more. The ICC could be designed with strategically located hiding spots for patrol cars and pullover spots for police to stop drivers safely. Heck, let the police help design the road.

I'm not an advocate of a general ban on using cell phones while driving, but a new road calls for new rules. Why not make the ICC a cell-free highway, with prominent signs at every entrance leaving no doubt?

To accomplish many of these things, the Maryland Department of Transportation will need legal authority it does not have. Next January would be a good time to ask the General Assembly for just that.


The Feb. 12 "Getting There" column told readers about the Washington transit system's B30 bus between BWI Marshall Airport and the Greenbelt Metro system, which along with the Baltimore light rail system offers riders a low-cost, seven-days-a-week transit link between the two cities.

The article noted that the Maryland Transit Administration had done little to inform readers about the link. But the MTA recently placed posters prominently on light rail cars informing riders of the B30 connection. Good move.

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