- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 4, 2004

Ernest Taylor is looking for trouble. Driving the highways of Northern Virginia and the District, it’s easy to find. Today is no exception. “Hi ma’am. I’m with the CVS Samaritan program. You need some help?” He’s talking to a driver stalled on New York Avenue near the Interstate 395 interchange.

What she sees is a polite, young-looking 48-year-old in a blue uniform and bright yellow safety vest. And in the rearview mirror, his white van with the reassuring flashing yellow lights and the red CVS logo.

On workdays, Mr. Taylor drives up and down I-395 between the Mixing Bowl and New York Avenue, with an occasional foray onto I-95 and other major arteries. He is looking for broken-down cars, lost drivers and others in distress.

His van provides a free service, funded by the CVS pharmacy company, for people who get a flat tire, run out of gas, snap a throttle cable, overheat a radiator, get in an accident or otherwise find themselves stuck where they don’t want to be.

“I’m out here by myself, but I get to make a difference,” Mr. Taylor says. “I’m helping people.”

For the driver on New York Avenue, that includes a quick conversation to see what’s wrong and to find out whether help is on the way and then setting out some flares to warn approaching traffic.

In general, Mr. Taylor says that difference means removing a little stress from the hectic drive on one of the nation’s busier highways.

Nearly 200,000 vehicles a day speed across any given stretch of the 16-mile I-395 corridor, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Most squeeze through the snarl of traffic, a few crash, and some drivers simply suffer a minor mechanical failure. Mr. Taylor stops to help out.

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the Virginia State Police also have programs to assist motorists along the same highways.

“It’s a supplement to what we do. It’s a great help,” Ryan Hall, VDOT spokesman, says of the CVS program.

Mr. Taylor, trained as an emergency medical technician and as a mechanic, rides the highway Monday through Friday starting at 6 a.m. He has been on the job for two years, sitting at the wheel of a van stocked with jacks, a spare tire, gasoline and diesel fuel, oil, antifreeze, water, traffic cones, flares, jumper cables and miscellaneous parts.

He warns that a lot more cars die as cold weather settles in.

“Do you want a tip? Make sure to check your antifreeze before winter,” he says.

And a lot more cars run out of gas on Fridays.

“They’re trying to make it to the weekend,” he says.

One day this week, Mr. Taylor, in early morning traffic, is looking for someone to help. Driving just outside the Mixing Bowl, he spots a car on the shoulder of the interstate.

“He looks OK, but we’ll check on him,” he says, flicking on flashing lights as he pulls up behind the vehicle.

“Everything all right?” he asks.

He gets a nod and ambles back to the truck. The driver had just pulled over to make a call on his cell phone.

A little way up the road, a semitrailer is on the shoulder. Mr. Taylor stops and asks whether everything is OK.

“They told me Exit 8C, but I don’t know where that is,” says the driver.

Mr. Taylor explains and points, the driver says thanks, and that’s it.

“I run into a lot of people who are lost. I give them directions. Sometimes, I have them follow me to their exit,” Mr. Taylor says.

Another driver is looking under the hood of a red Mazda 323, staring at a smoking radiator. Mr. Taylor suggests pushing the car off a narrow shoulder near the King Street Exit and into a wider safety zone and then a simple fix to get the car running. But the driver demures, saying AAA is on the way.

“He can stay here if he wants. I don’t like to force the issue,” he says.

Mr. Taylor does like to come across people he can send on their way. If he is heading northbound and sees a car broken down in southbound lanes, he will navigate a series of ramps to get over.

He usually drives 120 to 160 miles a day on his quest. It’s a lot of miles in sometimes unforgiving traffic — a trip many would pay to avoid. But Mr. Taylor gets paid to drive right in, and he says he enjoys every mile.

“To help out a little, that’s a great feeling,” he says.

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