- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2001

Fed up with highway congestion, the Northern Virginia Roundtable, a collection of business groups, recently launched a new initiative to find additional transportation funding, from a region-wide transportation authority, and to expand the use of information technologies. The trouble is, we cant build our way out of this mess, and new technologies are of limited value, at least in the short run. What we really need are smarter drivers.
In the 1970s and 1980s large scale land developers got their way in court and forced local jurisdictions to authorize housing and commercial growth far in excess of the traffic carrying capacity of the regions transportation systems. Then, as now, each new home and business adds more cars. More cars, more congestion. Highway congest ion today is a byproduct of this cycle of affluence and past growth. What to do, what to do?
For years commuters have complained. Promises of a fix came and went while congestion just got worse and worse. Frustrated commuters began to take things into their own hands, and adopted do-it-yourself tactics. First, they ignored posted speed limits. Next, like Metro riders, they tried to squeeze onto every last foot of roadway by tailgating the car ahead.
Recently, on a drive from Springfield, Virginia to Bethesda, Maryland on the Capital Beltway in the early afternoon, in uncongested traffic, I maintained the posted speed limit of 55 MPH. How many cars passed me? Every single car sped by going 60, 65 and 70 MPH. By turning a blind eye, troopers sworn to enforce the speed limits on the Beltway are really setting the stage for disaster. Mid-day drivers might get away with excess speed. But during the rush hours speeding becomes a prime ingredient in the congestion formula.
The second ingredient is tailgating. Standing on the Vienna Metro overwalk spanning I-66 the other day I noted the average distance between vehicles was about two car lengths. These cars were traveling 60 and 65 MPH. According to the Virginia Drivers Manual, it takes a car traveling at 55 mph 216 feet to come to a stop.
What happens during rush hour traffic when these two evils speeding and tailgating meet one another? Rear-end collisions are the inevitable outcome. Drivers simply do not have the time under these circumstances to avoid fender benders that can bring the Beltway to a standstill. Add a little rain, ice or even a glaring sun, and … While it is hard to estimate how much of the regions roadway congestion is due to avoidable accidents, I believe the first step in tackling the regions traffic congestion is better enforcement of the rules of the road. We hear so much talk about how technology will come to the rescue with smart highways, but so little attention is given to common sense steps, like enforcing the speed limits and curtailing tailgating.
Every person with a Virginia drivers license is familiar with the rule calling for keeping a safe distance between cars. The rule simply states that a driver must keep one car length of space between vehicles for every 10 mph, or five and half lengths between cars traveling at the speed limit on the beltway. That distance is a time and space cushion allowing drivers to react, to slow and to stop before hitting vehicles slowing down ahead. Take away that cushion and the number of fender benders, and congestion, goes up.
David Guernsey, chairman of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, says the Roundtables new offensive, "Identifies real solutions to our transportation problems and offers a way out of congestion for millions of area commuters." Well, maybe in the long run. For the time being, however, cultivating smart drivers is the way to go; drivers who know and obey the rules of the road.

E-mail: fraserrerols.com
Ronald Fraser lives in Northern Virginia.

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