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Crash alley

November 26, 2012 12:10 am

YOU'D THINK that drivers on the Beltway, having experienced two years of lane-shuffling, traffic-altering construction, would have been ready for the opening of the 495 express lanes. But they were not, and the accident-plagued start should be a lesson for the future.

Santa Claus initiated the opening of the new express lanes on Nov. 17, but while he made it through unscathed, many other drivers did not. The lanes, added to the Capital Beltway between the Springfield interchange and the Dulles toll road, are designed to ease congestion by offering drivers the option of paying for a faster ride. But the signage was confusing, and when some drivers found themselves inadvertently entering the toll lanes, they tried to back up or they swerved suddenly, causing crashes and injuries.

According to Virginia State Police, most of the accidents were caused by people trying to avoid paying tolls. Maybe they didn't have the E-ZPass. Maybe just didn't want to shell out the money. Whatever the reason, their surprise when they found themselves in the chute leading to the toll lanes caused crashes.

Pierce Coffee, spokeswoman for Transurban, the company that operates the 495 express lanes, said, "Like with any new facility or road that opens, there's going to be some driver confusion. These signs are new so people aren't used to them."

Ms. Coffee's matter-of-fact "yes, people do this" response aside, there's a simple solution: Waive the tolls for the first few days that the lanes are open. Then people won't panic when they see they're entering the express lanes.

When a WTOP reporter pressed Ms. Coffee on this very issue, she sidestepped the suggestion, saying simply that safety was a top priority. She also said those who entered the lanes by mistake and were charged tolls should call customer service, implying, at least, that refunds may be made case by case.

But, really, that's a little cheap. After all, drivers have put up with traffic-clogging construction for a couple of years--can't Transurban allow them a couple of free days to get used to the new travel patterns?

A few years from now, much of Greater Fredericksburg will face this same thing. The I-95 HOT lanes will open, and experience tells us that confused drivers again will end up on the toll lanes when they don't mean to be there. Local and state transportation authorities should insist on a free break-in time. Consider it a thank-you gift from a company that stands to make a whole lot of money off our traffic.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.