ANNAPOLIS A car runs out of gas on the Capital Beltway, stalling in the middle lane at 8 a.m. An hour later, a pickup catches fire, and the driver cannot move it to the shoulder because his front seat is in flames. In the evening, a tanker overturns, smashing into oncoming vehicles and blocking two lanes of traffic.
While these scenarios may be a Beltway driver’s worst nightmare, they could be a lot worse. A technologically advanced traffic monitoring system, known as CHART, is helping police clear the roadways and keep traffic moving.
State police representatives say the program, which began statewide in 1995, has proven an invaluable resource for traffic problem response.
“The traffic problems in the Washington metro area are phenomenal, and the forecasts for the future don’t look any better,” said Lt. C.D. Tyler, with the Maryland State Police. “This (program) is getting the traffic moving quicker.”
Chesapeake Highway Advisories Routing Traffic, the full name of the program, collects information from cameras, computers, tow trucks and good Samaritans and uses it to follow traffic patterns and monitor problems around the clock.
A panel of employees at the main operations center in Hanover fields phone calls, gathers traffic information and uses it to advise motorists about potential traffic problems and help those already in trouble.
“About two-thirds of the delay on the Beltway is nonrecurring incidents, like accidents, disabled vehicles or debris in the road,” said David Buck, spokesman with the Maryland State Highway Administration. Personnel from the highway administration work with Maryland State Police in the CHART program.
“Prior to our program, it would have taken five to six hours to upright an overturned tanker truck and get it off the road,” he said. “Now, we’ve cut the time in half. It will only take two to three hours, and that’s our worst-case scenario.”
The statewide operations center has a mission control room much like NASA’s with a 40-foot-long projection wall covered with camera images and a satellite system that connects it to several smaller centers in the area. CHART covers the Capital Beltway, the Baltimore Beltway, sections of I-270, I-95, U.S. Highway 50 and other highways in the area.
Traffic speed detectors placed throughout these highway systems monitor the flow of traffic. Any deviation from normal traffic flow can clue CHART operators into problems, Buck said. More than 20 cameras mounted around the highways provide visual information for the operators.
Commuters can access the scenes gathered, find their travel route and read information on potential problems on CHART’s website at http://www.chart.state.md.us.
“We are the only state in the country where you can get live video of the traffic on roads in real time,” Buck said. The website, which has been active for about six months, gets an average of 10,000 hits a day.
CHART operators also receive the cellular phone calls from the special #77 line by people reporting traffic incidents. The cellular line gets more than 10,000 calls each year.
Using the information compiled from the cameras and phone calls, the operators post programmable message boards on highways advising drivers of problems or congestion. In addition, the operators provide travelers’ advisories on radio station 530 AM as needed.
“This program has tremendous benefits and is very necessary,” Tyler said. “We’d almost be lost without (the highway administration’s) cooperation.”
Tow trucks with the program travel the roads during most parts of the day, equipped with gallons of gas, rope and anything else needed to help motorists and move disabled vehicles off the highway. Employees with CHART do everything from fixing flat tires to pushing smashed vehicles out of the main stream of traffic for free.
In one year, approximately 15,000 drivers received help from CHART’s trucks, Buck said.
“Those tow trucks supplement the patrols of our troops,” Tyler said. “We have so many diversified calls during the day that we always need the help.”
The trucks’ average response time is around six minutes during rush hour and 10 minutes at most other times, Buck said.
“We’ve gotten literally thousands of letters from people who we’ve helped change a flat tire or brought a gallon of gas,” he said. – 30-