Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Handling Traffic Emergencies

Handling Traffic Emergencies

For 18 years, I have driven to Indianapolis on a nearly daily basis, usually following I-69 to I-465. On Tuesday morning, December 5, there was another of the common accidents that closed the road southbound near Anderson. As I understand it, the highway was closed from about 7:15 a.m., when the accident occurred, until it was finally cleared, about noon. I came upon the stopped traffic just past mile marker 26 and it took over an hour to make it four miles to the Pendleton exit, where the traffic was being routed off.

I understand that accidents are a common and (at least for now) unavoidable consequence of traffic on our highways. At the same time, I wonder why they should result in such dramatic traffic delays when they are totally predictable.

If it were just for the frustration of losing an hour (although I have been in similar congestion that lasted more than 4 hours) I would just count myself lucky that I wasn’t involved in the accident and have sympathy for those who were. As a former law enforcement officer, I also know that there is more to do than just take care of the injured and clean up the mess. There is often an investigation that must be at least partially completed before the scene can be cleared. All of that, however, should still not result in the long delays that always seem to result.

Every driver, trucker, and passenger that came along that highway – thousands of them – lost more than an hour that morning. People missed jobs, appointments, and maybe flight connections. Some goods didn’t get to their destination on time – an important issue for factories and for connecting transportation awaiting shipping or trucks. Thousands of extra gallons of fuel were burned. Without trying to calculate a number, it’s easy to guess that millions of dollars were lost to the Indiana economy. And in spite of the accident, it appears to me that much of the delay didn’t need to happen.

Those of us in the public sector are not doing enough to plan for this kind of event. In this case, the big bottleneck was at the Pendleton exit. There was no one directing traffic there and so every vehicle had to wait needlessly at the light. There was also no additional traffic control in Pendleton, where the traffic was snarling as it tried to get through town. There were no signs at exits or on-ramps north of the accident that could have redirected traffic, even though the accident was hours old by the time I arrived. State highway trucks were used to funnel the traffic off of the interstate and to block any vehicles from making U-turns, but there was no warning that the traffic was being routed off until the driver was close enough to see the exit (not far if you are following a semi). That meant that many of the drivers were scrambling for maps as they approached the exit. I tried listening to the INDOT radio frequency (530 AM). It was inaudible but, from the few words I could hear, it wasn’t mentioning the road closure at all.

It was obvious to me, as I waited, that this is not the kind of situation that we would like to have happen on a large scale in the event of a major public emergency. If we can’t manage traffic after a single and predictable highway accident, what would happen in the event of a large disaster?

My purpose here isn’t to whine about the inconvenience. My purpose is to suggest a different approach. In an age of heightened concern about homeland security, shouldn’t we have public plans that deal with the details so that, should a larger crisis ever arise, we could respond with some sense of composure and order?

Here are my suggestions.

First, INDOT and the Department of Homeland Security should have a plan that thoroughly addresses any blockage of any section of Interstate Highway. Where will the traffic be rerouted? Who is responsible for the choke points along the detour(s)? How do we re-regulate the traffic control devices along the detours for the heavier traffic? Which highway or street departments and which law enforcement agencies should be notified and what are their responsibilities?

Second, isn’t there a better way to warn and reroute traffic before it gets into the bottleneck? How about portable signs at preceding on-ramps and off-ramps that could be quickly placed by public safety to help vehicles avoid the congestion? That would, in turn, mean less congestion and delay for those who hadn’t been able to avoid it.

Third, we need information delivered quickly to the motorists. INDOT already has the radio frequency. A few portable signs asking motorists to tune in coupled with a temporary transmitter could give information on alternative routes, expected delay time, emergency phone numbers, and other important information.

I’m sure our Homeland Security folks and Transportation officials could come up with some other useful ideas to incorporate into an overall plan. Executing those plans when the need arose would not only save a lot of time and money for Hoosier motorists but would serve as great practice for larger emergencies. The problem is too common and too costly not to address. We need some solutions and we need to put them into practice.


Mark Grady said...

I know that other states have 511 highway information service, and I am in the early stages of talking to INDOT about developing this service for the toll road corridor.

I'll look forward to talking with you about this the next time we cross paths. You raise several excellent points.

Matt Wright said...

Just FYI. I was out there that morning, in the cold, patiently cutting and prying on the cab of a semi-tractor ripped from its frame with a severely injured patient inside.

And I requested a helicopter to land on the interstate to take him to Methodist hospital for emergency surgery to repair his lacerated spleen.

Oh...did I mention we were standing in hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel? The HazMat team cleaned all of that up to the standards that the State and the Fed require. It usually takes quite a while to do that.

I'm sorry if you were late going somewhere. I agree that better traffic information should be available. I disagree about INDOT forming plans for traffic accidents at any location. It sounds like "busy work" to me. More funding at County levels for Emergency Management would alleviate the burden on police officers and INDOT when rerouting traffic.

Matt Wright said...

I feel a comprehensive plan of all the INDOT maintained highways is not feasible due to the unpredictability of what type of accidents will occur and where. Not all accidents shut down interstates. Some shut down one lane and some shut down both north and south bound lanes of I69. While a degree of planning on the part of INDOT by providing advanced warning of alternate routes due to road coverage sounds nice where are we going to place all of these signs? Before each exit?

And what is the response time of an INDOT truck to Exit 22 at 2am in the morning? During most situations we would have the wreck cleaned up before they even arrived. While relying on County EMA is hit and miss at best, we have found that traffic control at a local level works better for all involved.

Local law enforcement knows the area and the best routes to send traffic towards. Pendleton is fortunate to have many alternate routes via StRd38, StRd36 and StRds9/67. 90% of the time the fire department coordinates with the police department to handle traffic control concerns and EMA is called as a nod to their existence with the hope that someone will show up.

I'm sure planning of rerouting of vehicles at major intersections and high volume areas might solve problems before they arise, but in the situation you were in, on said morning, where else would traffic have been sent? I understand downtown Pendleton is not able to handle the traffic volume of the Interstate (large trucks are not permitted in the downtown area at all) but there are few other choices if 69 is closed.

We have also noted when we have Incident Command Classes that involve NIMS training few (if any) law enforcement representatives show up. On scene we have had problems for, literally, years getting State Troopers to understand that under the Incident Command System the Incident Commander (Usually the Fire Chief or an Asst Chief) is in charge of all aspects of the scene. Troopers have been rude and have at times put our lives at risk instead of shutting the interstate down. This is not always the case, but it is a frequent scenario.

In short we do train, have preset routes for traffic to go through and who should be contacted, but the time constraints, man power and overall knowledge of the area usually make the task better handled by our local fire department and law enforcement.

I do appreciate your reply to my post. I first read your letter in the Anderson Herald Bulletin and then found you had a blog on google. State Rep. Scott Reske was also a long time volunteer firefighter with Pendleton and we've discussed our concerns over some of these issues.