Is there someone you can call?

EDITORIAL

Article November 13, 2003
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A warning to all those driving east (or west) on I-94: It
quickly becomes I-93.5.

There I was trying to absorb my first book on CD, shooting
down Michigan’s four-lane drag on my way to a Saturday wedding in Plymouth.
The stereo-enhanced storyteller had lost me, which allowed my brain to occupy
itself with a far more important neurological task: generating quick enough
reflexes to go from 80 to 0 mph in less than 50 ft. It was as if traffic were
trying to pull a classic high school hallway prank. The steel body in front of
me decided to freeze, forming a sudden crash wall. Luckily I was able to brake
and steer my way out of embarrassment--and perhaps injury.

“OK, must be an accident,” I said to myself.
I-94 between Chicago and Detroit has been known to turn into some kind of
circus freak. In March 1998 it swallowed dozens of cars during a blizzard.
Motorists actually had to be rescued by helicopter.

Traffic crawled for about 15 minutes when I noticed flashing
lights on what appeared to be . . . um . . . wait . . . a message board? Would
they actually shut down a lane on one of the most heavily traveled interstates
in the country . . . on a Friday . . . at 4:30 p.m.? It took another 15 minutes
before I could read the electronic sign and, sure enough, it blinked:
“24-hour lane closure ahead.”

OK, fair enough. I have heard enough tear-basted stories of
how some highway worker was only trying to do their job when some reckless dolt
took a life. Extended cushion for the hard hats is needed everywhere. But what
really frustrated me as I strolled past the median work was the lack of advance
warning. Where was the blinking message board 10 miles before the work zone?
Heck, there should have been three or four spaced across a 20-mile stretch
warning me to stay alert and offering up alternative routes. Did I mention this
was a major interstate--one where massive trucks carrying a ton of cargo
are traveling faster than they should, and the slightest change in traffic could
cause a catastrophic event?

But there is only so much one can comprehend when traveling
at highway speeds and trying to read sentences that go black every other
second. What the state of Michigan really needs is the 5-1-1 travel advisory
service, where those on the go can call for current reports on those routes
where road conditions, highway crashes, local events and other occurrences
cause heavy traffic congestion. This unique telephone assistance is already
available in parts of Utah, Kentucky and Virginia, as well as the San Francisco
Bay and Orlando areas.

A trend is gaining strength. Nationwide 5-1-1 calls climbed
from 88,360 in June 2001 to 207,481 in June 2002 to 918,822 in February 2003.
Run by state DOTs, 5-1-1 is now available to about 50 million people. The 511
Deployment Coalition predicts half of the U.S. will be engaged by 2005, and
coast-to-coast coverage will be available by 2010.

Of course, for most of us this just means seven years of
continued frustration. And it just wouldn’t be America if there
weren’t some power-tripping outfit delivering an ego block. Apparently
telephone companies are refusing to deal with service to certain fractions of a
state.

Will the FCC step in and tell them to behave? Well, I was a
junior in college when the agency vowed to regulate the cable
industry--and that was 14 years ago. So I’m willing to bet my prized
Billy Williams autographed baseball that it will not be until 2020 when all the
issues are resolved and 5-1-1 will be available to everyone.

In the meantime, send a canary into the coal mine. Travel in
two cars spaced a couple of hours apart. If traffic turns poisonous, the lead
driver can contact the follower via cell phone. It worked for my sister. She
was notified four hours in advance about the I-94 trouble and was able to hop
on the Indiana Toll Road. I’m sure you can guess who played the role of
the canary. Somebody owes me at least a month’s worth of cage cleaning.

Bill Wilson

Editor

[email protected]

About the author: 
Bill Wilson is editor of Roads & Bridges.
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