Dr. Gridlock

Jul 11, 2011

The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, will be online to take all your questions about Metro, traffic throughout the region and other transportation issues.

Hi Dr. G., I know driving while using a hand-held cell phone is illegal now in D.C., Maryland, and Delaware (and, I am sure, in other states). I still see people doing it all the time. However, lately I am noticing another distraction - drivers with earbuds. I don't know if they are using them for their phones or their iPods, but isn't it illegal to drive with something stuck inside your ears? You would not be able to hear sirens, traffic around you, screaming kids in your backseat (OK, that might not be so bad!), or other potential distractions while you drive if you are listening to loud music/talking on the phone with someone. Common sense tells me this should be illegal, but is it? I know that my almost-driving-age daughter will get her privileges revoked if I find out she's been driving with earbuds in her ears! Wondering in Maryland

At the moment, I can't find a specific citation for you from Maryland traffic law.  But you're certainly correct in thinking that driving with your ears covered is a problem. I wouldn't bike with my ears covered, either. Although, I must confess, I do walk while listening to my iPod.

My kids have received a number of $40 speed camera tickets recently along Route 1 in College Park. It appears there may be a game of changing speed limits (ranging from 30-40 MPH) on Route 1 between the Beltway and the University of Maryland campus. Just a warning for your readers - to be safe, don't go above 40 anywhere on Route 1 -- particularly for all those parents of freshmen driving to the campus the next few months.

College Park started using speed enforcement cameras last fall. Under Maryland State law, a camera can be used on a local road with a speed limit no higher than 35 mph. To get a ticket from a camera, a driver would have to be going at least 12 mph above the posted speed limit.

Dr. G - I have noticed 5 digit "Stop ID's" on stickers appearing on RideOn bus stop signs. Does this mean that NextBus is coming soon to beleaguered RideOn customers?

Yes, Montgomery County is working on a real-time bus information system similar to the Next Bus system that's available for Metrobuses. But so far,  I haven't heard of a start date for the program.

If it works as well as Next Bus, I wouldn't rely on it too heavily.

Dr. G, is there a law against occupying 2 parking spaces, say in a shopping mall? I don't mean someone who parks a bit over the line, but someone who parks his or her luxury (or any) car or SUV smack in the middle of 2 spaces. it's very irritating, but is it illegal? Thanks.

I don't know of a law in any of our local jurisdictions that makes this annoying practice illegal in private parking lots or garages.

I've noticed improvements in the air cooling/circulation at Metro Center and elsewhere, but Rosslyn is still stifling, especially in the afternoon. No air circulating at all, not even hot air, except what blows out of the tunnels when the trains arrive. It is undergoing major renovation, but it would be nice if something could be done before the summer is over!

I'll ask Metro if there's a problem at Rosslyn. You may recall we had a similar question a couple of weeks back about Woodley Park, and it turned out that Metro workers who were fixing the chiller unit there discovered a busted part that took a while to replace.

There are lots of things that can go wrong with the aging equipment in the stations. On hot days, temperatures can vary a lot from station to station.

My husband and I are driving to Richmond on Saturday and need to be there by 6:00 for a 50th birthday party. We live in Silver Spring -- any thoughts on traffic down I-95 on Saturday and how much time we should give ourselves to make it there? I still carry scars from last summer when we left for the Outer Banks at 11:00 on a Saturday and didn't even hit Richmond until 4:00. Is I-95 likely to be that bad on another summer Saturday?

I'd leave four hours for the trip, meaning I think southbound traffic will be heavy on I-95 in Virginia, but that what you experienced on the OBX trip last summer was unusually severe. (Do other readers dispute this?)

Starting from Silver Spring on Saturday, I don't really see an alternative route to suggest that would be likely to cut your travel time.


Driving across the 14th St Bridge this morning into DC, it appears that they've finished (or nearly finished) repaving the last section of the project. Any word on when they're finally going to be taking down the barriers and wrapping up this project?

No. The announced completion is this fall, but the project has been moving along quite rapidly in recent months, after a slow start. So I've been very hopeful that it's going to end this summer.

Dr. G - saw your Sunday column and the comment that complaints are down about the Toll Road. I can't speak for anyone else, but here's why I've pretty much stopped complaining - I'M TIRED! This has been going on for about a year and we have about one more year to go. Every time MWAA and the TransUrban guys "fix" something it gets worse! It was bad this morning...it's bad almost every morning...it'll be bad until next summer. Then, and only, then it may get marginally better. It's this very type of dysfunction that's making me look for a new home in Florida, I'm not going to continue to beat my head against this wall.

We're talking about the HOT lanes work zone at the Beltway that has been so bothersome for eastbound drivers on the Dulles Toll Road.

This has long been a problem area, but for a few weeks in June, it became the top source of complaints in my mailbag. VDOT has taken several steps to ease the congestion, and complaints have definitely fallen off, but I've heard from some drivers who say, yeah, it's a bit better because summer vacations decreased total traffic volumes, but the problem itself remains.

By "problem," drivers seem particularly concerned about the work zone over on the left side of the Toll Road that is squeezing them. I'm pretty sure that work zone is going to remain there, since that's where the project is going to build one of the new ramps. And the work will continue into 2012.


Dr. Gridlock, is there any way to request DC to install red light cameras at certain locations? Every morning as I am standing at 18th and K (the north side heading to Eye Street), someone in the service lane runs the red light to make a right-hand turn onto 18th. 4201 Mass. Ave. (bus stops of both sides of Mass. Ave.) could use one as well. Thanks.

I think in DC, I'd work through your local Advisory Neighborhood Commission if the location is in your neighborhood. But I think you also could use the mayor's 311 service request system.

My cell phone is a work blackberry and we aren't allowed to use bluetooth (go figure). I have to use the ear buds supplied with the phone. You can still hear traffic sounds without a problem. I am sure I can hear better than people with the music so loud it moves the pictures on my wall as they drive by.

There are all sorts of ways drivers either distract themselves or mask the road sounds they need to be listening for.

In this long-time debate over cell phone and texting laws, I've been concerned that lawmakers have picked a convenient target: Kids who can't vote.

Cell phones can be very distracting. All you have to do is stand on a street corner and watch drivers making turns while talking and you know this is true. But plenty of other things are distracting, too. Loud music. Map reading.

I have two mobile phones, but never use them in my car.

A month ago, it seemed like every time I turned on the news, I heard a report of how traffice would come to a standstill if the Mark Center was not delayed. But, that news seemed to come to an end and I never heard a resolution one way or another. What happened?

Nothing. Nothing that changes the basic equation: Too many people driving to one place.

But there has been some activity. For example, a transit authority committee last week approved the startup of some new bus services designed to get some of those workers out of their cars and onto transit.


Last week I-66 was closed due to a truck that was carrying hay caught up on fire. The closed interestate was 5 hours. I was in the mess with nowhere to go... literally. The clean up crew brought in equipment and bobcats but why there is no compassion for the people stuck more than 4 hrs in an accident scene and not bring a port-a -potty ? It was a nightmare... im a girl and in my fourties.

That's an interesting idea, and I can certainly see the utility. Can't recall that ever being done.

I have a feeling drivers would rather see any spare resources devoted to clearing the problem more quickly and getting everyone moving.

Someone raised this issue of regulation of traffic and parking at shopping centers at our homeowners' association annual meeting one year when a Fairfax County policeman was present to answer questions. He said that except for fire lanes and handicapped spaces, they do not have jurisdiction to regulate things like parking over the line on private property such as a mall, although they can do it at public facilities like the courthouse. Ordinances governing things of this sort are local, not state-wide, and so even the colleges and universities around Virginia have rules about it so that their ticket-writers can enforce it (UVA calls the violation the very odd "improper angle, across stall line"....."stall" sounds to me like something restroom-related).

Thanks for this response on our earlier exchange. A private parking area can be a free for all. It's a dangerous place for both drivers and pedestrians.

In my column, we've had an exchange going on for months over whether it's best to back into a parking space, pull in head on, or pull in head on and go through to the other side, so you're facing out when you leave.

I know in a way this sounds so common and every-day, but it continues to generate many, many letters from drivers who get very upset about what they see in parking lots.

No you don't! You can "Hang Up and Drive." You don't HAVE to talk on the phone while you drive. You want to. You can and should pull over and call. The world is not going to end if you wait 5 minutes to return a call. Somehow we all make it this far with ancestors who could not.

There's a campaign in the HOT lanes work zone in Virginia called "Orange Cones. No Phones." (One driver wrote in to say there's no need to limit the campaign to work zones.)

One of the things I like about the campaign is that it acknowledges that many midday drivers feel pressure to continue working while they drive. They believe their bosses expect them to be on the phone while they're in the driver's seat. The campaign gets employers to pledge not to make such demands.

Dr. Gridlock, This is a bit far in advance, but what is the traffic like on the Bay Bridge in mid-September? I need to get from the Hyatt resort in Cambridge, MD to downtown DC on Sunday the 18th of September, and am wondering how much extra time to build in to bridge traffic. I will likely be leaving around noon, will I hit a lot of delay, or is that early enough in the day? Google Maps says travel time is about 2 hours.

I think you should be fine on a Sunday after Labor Day. There's probably going to be some extra traffic, but not the big delays drivers experience on summer weekends. If it's an appointment you're keeping, I might leave two and a half hours to be safer.


This morning on the BW parkway, I was keeping a safe (but probably still too little) following distance from teh car in front of me in the left lane, and was definitely keeping with the speed of all cars in the left lane and passing the cars in the right. A Mini Cooper was riding my tail for about 10 minutes and it was so close I could not see it or its lights (dark out still when I was driving) in my mirror. I tapped my brakes a few times to flash the lights at the car, and it backed off to the point I could see it, but what is a reasonable driver to do in that situation? To get into the right lane, I would've had to brake and wait for a gap and merge in, and I was not obstructing the left lane unless I was supposed to drive over the car in front of me? It made me so nervous the whole time.

On that last one about the tail-gater, I always say we shouldn't self-deputize. I don't see brake-tapping, or other measures as being real helpful. Sometimes, they'll take your mind off what's happening in front of you, or to the left or right, which is your responsibility. The driver behind you needs to worry about his own actions.

In Virginia it is illegal to drive with headphones in both ears. See Va. Code 46.2-1078. By stating "in both ears" the statute allows the use of an earpiece in one ear. Interestingly, the statute applies to riding a bike as well! http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+46.2-1078

Thanks for the citation. I do believe we could find something similar in many state codes, including the reference to bikes. In any case, I think it makes sense. Drivers need to be able to hear road sounds, especially emergency vehicles.

It's like the toll road issue. People got tired of talking about it, but the problem is still there.

I think one thing we're waiting for regarding the Mark Center is whether the feds will in fact delay the full transfer of workers. But last I heard, the official deadline for all transfers remains Sept. 15.

Driving to Georgia on Friday morning. Early. 5am early. Is 495 badly congested that early in the morning so that we should take 301 from Baltimore?

No, not that early. Take 495 -- but listen to the radio traffic reports along the way.

Do you think there would be any consideration of making 66 inside the beltway HOV3 and/or HOT lanes?

Yes, I think the commonwealth will consider both, but I'm not sure what the prospects are. There are studies underway about what to do with I-66 both inside and outside the Beltway.

(The Beltway HOT lanes will be toll or HOV3.)

Dear Dr. Gridlock, Am I the only one who doesn't know about the "new" Maryland Move Over Law? I was pulled over on Saturday at 8:30 am on I-95 just north of Baltimore. I was driving my Honda Pilot with my husband, young son (buckled into his booster) and family dog. I was driving in the right lane and passed a police car and other vehicle on the right shoulder but thought nothing of it. The next thing I knew, I was pulled over and issued a $110 ticket for violating this law that I had never heard of. The office did me a "favor" by not issuing any points. Can I fight this? Do I have a leg to stand on? Was there any type of public awareness campaign that I missed?

I think Hawaii is the only state left that doesn't have a Move Over law, requiring drivers to either change lanes or, if that's not safe, to slow down significantly for emergency vehicles on the shoulders.

I'm not sure what the prospects are for fighting a ticket on that.

Here's a link to a pdf text of the Maryland law:


There are tons of broken, loose and missing tiles on the platform at the Vienna station. It's been like this more months, maybe even a year. When will they get this fixed?

This is a big problem at many Metro stations: The old paver tiles are crumbling. Lots of work needs to be done, but the real fix is that Metro is going to be installing a new style of tiling. Much bigger and thicker squares that need less maintenance and last longer.

Travelers, I need to sign off now. There are a few topics left that I'd like to deal with in the Dr. Gridlock blog during the next day or two. Please look there. I notice there still are a bunch of questions about how long it will take to get somewhere, so that's one of the topics I'll tackle on the blog.

Stay safe, and please join me again next Monday.

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Robert Thomson
Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He offers therapy for that most intimate relationship: the one between you and your commute. You can read his work on his namesake blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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