- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 3, 2001

Erecting traffic lights rarely eases congestion because halting traffic does not generally cause it to move faster or more freely yet that is precisely what the Maryland State Highway Administration has in mind for sections of the Capital Beltway under its control. According to Maryland officials, stop lights will be erected at on-ramps at several locations around the I-495 Beltway. Maryland officials insist on referring to these stop lights as "ramp meters" but the function is identical. Motorists will confront a red or green signal, and will only be allowed to enter the Beltway lawfully when the light goes green.
"The ramp meter is a mechanism that can move traffic on the freeway more efficiently than regular ramp movement," Lora Rakowski of the Maryland State Highway Administration told this newspaper's Tom Ramstack. "Locations that are very busy and very congested are going to be the best locations" for the meters, she said.
The theory is that by regulating traffic flow, traffic will flow more smoothly. But the theory has a number of practical problems. Chief among them is that by forcing motorists to come to a complete stop before attempting to merge with fast-moving Beltway traffic, Maryland transportation officials have created a potentially dangerous situation wherein drivers must accelerate rapidly from a standstill in order to match the speed of traffic flow typically 50-70 mph. Yet few drivers are sufficiently skilled at this type of driving, let alone feel comfortable performing the "Le Mans start" necessary to get onto the road. Thus, the practical result of the ramp meters will be dangerously slow-moving traffic merging with much faster-moving traffic a recipe for more accidents and probably even more gridlock than would otherwise occur.
Indeed, Mrs. Rakowski admitted as much to Mr. Ramstack, acknowledging that "poorly placed ramp meters can create as many problems as they solve." But she did not deal with the serious issue of what highway engineers refer to as "speed variance" which is held by many traffic engineers to be among the single most dangerous variables leading to accidents and injuries involving motor vehicles. Speed variance exists when there are multiple vehicles moving at widely differing speeds. In such an environment, faster-moving cars rapidly overtake the slower-moving cars; this in turn leads to weaving and passing maneuvers, abrupt braking all factors that make the driving environment less safe.
Anyone who has had a slow-moving car suddenly pull in front of him understands this perfectly. It's unfortunate that Maryland highway officials don't.


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