- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

Horrendous traffic jams did not stop technology-savvy District commuters from conducting business yesterday, not in a city where BlackBerrys are more than a fruit and roadside cameras enable anyone with an Internet connection to see into the future of their ride.

And worst case, there’s always those low-tech cell phones.

BlackBerrys and other mobile devices used for e-mail may not have made it any easier for people stuck in their cars yesterday morning, but at least they could keep working or get permission to telecommute.

Mary Good was on her way to work for a morning meeting when traffic backed up on the Whitehurst Freeway. The senior vice president of human resources at Blackboard Inc. used her BlackBerry to make a phone call and then sent a follow-up e-mail requesting the meeting be postponed, which it was, and then continued to send e-mails until traffic started moving again.

The education software company, which has 850 employees worldwide including 350 at its corporate headquarters in the District, uses staggered schedules so employees can come in and leave after rush hours, and many work from home on a regular basis, Ms. Good said.

“We have employees coming in from all over the D.C. area and the use of technology has really enabled people to have a better quality of life given the traffic situation everyone faces,” she said.

Penny Pickett, president of the Washington D.C. Technology Council, also was trapped in the snarl and used her BlackBerry, made by Research in Motion Ltd., to send and receive messages “so I was able to conduct business.”

The council’s downtown office location means most employees used Metro to get to work, but another driver used his XM Satellite Radio subscription’s traffic service to help navigate an alternate route, Ms. Pickett said.

For commuters who heard about the accidents in advance via radio, TV or online, telecommuting — which is increasing in the Washington area — was probably their best option, she added.

Joe Wilcox, a senior analyst at JupiterResearch, telecommutes on a regular basis from his home in Kensington. He said traffic systems in the area are effective when it comes to alerting motorists about construction delays and are getting better at reporting accidents, but real-time alerts are “hit or miss, and part of that has to do with the lag between when the accident occurs and when the information will funnel out.”

The D.C. Department of Transportation’s network of more than 100 traffic cameras enables motorists to monitor the ebb and flow at dozens of busy intersections across the city. In addition to the cameras, DDOT employees used cell phones, e-mail, text and instant messages, radios and laptops to coordinate emergency response and subsequent traffic patterns among their counterparts in Maryland and Virginia, the Metropolitan Police Department, and the U.S. Park Police, said spokeswoman Karyn LeBlanc.

The TrafficLand.com Web site averages more than 2 million page views per month from users seeking access to more than 400 cameras in the Washington area, including DDOT’s. Yesterday the camera at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road Northeast, which was closest to the accident there, received six times the usual number of requests, said Jay Cohen, director of marketing for the Fairfax company.

Some European navigation systems have traffic-monitoring links and offer automatic rerouting capabilities, but similar consumer systems are not expected in the United States until at least 2007. About 10 percent of new vehicles in the United States, or about 1.7 million, have embedded Global Positioning System units, and about 4 million devices were on the road at the end of last year, according to automotive analysts.

Those without navigation systems but with mobile Internet access can call up a Web browser to check the traffic cameras at home before they leave and again if they are stuck on the road, Mr. Wilcox said.

Still, traditional traffic alerts via radio reports or cell phone calls may be the best place to start when deciding when to leave or whether to telecommute.

“That older-school technology might help you, but the GPS in your car might help plan the alternate route,” Mr. Wilcox said. “You may know there are alternate routes but have never taken them before, and it can tell you how to go.”

For those not as technologically savvy, there’s always an ancient tool: a paper map.

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