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Washington Traffic FAQ

Monday - 12/30/2013, 4:55pm  ET

When should I call the WTOP Traffic Center?

We welcome all calls and tips related to specific traffic disruptions on routes far and wide, from Richmond to Baltimore and from the Chesapeake Bay to the Shenandoah Mountains! You can reach us at 202-895-5048. Verizon and AT&T users can simply dial #1035.

The information provided by you, the motorist, is invaluable. Your tips help us better understand the nature of the problem spots and give us the ability to warn other drivers behind you. Often we are aware of issues before the authorities because of calls from our listeners.

Normally when we are reporting on a major incident, we are not as concerned with factors such as its physical appearance or the delay it causes but what portion of the road is blocked. The number of lanes blocked governs the potential for a delay, which is ever-changing. Likewise, we are less concerned about where traffic is slow and where it "picks up," as this can change by the minute.

If you tell us that you've been sitting through an unusual delay, we will know to monitor that particular stretch of road as a new crash may have just occurred in front of you. In this case, once you pass the bottleneck, we're always eager to hear back from you with any additional details you can provide. You'll be improving the guidance we can offer to the motorists behind you, who are still stuck in traffic.

When calling the WTOP Traffic Center, be sure to abide by state, hands-free laws.

We can be very busy during rush hours. We want to hear about what you've found, whether it's something minor like a piece of tire tread or a major accident like an overturned truck. Although we are able to entertain certain requests, we must keep the phone lines open for high-priority calls from police and other responders so that we can provide the most accurate information to all of our listeners on air. Please refer to our reports on the 8s if you need to know where the slow spots are.

Unplanned road closures and disruptions are nearly impossible to predict and their variables can be challenging to keep pace with. The components of an incident and the delay it causes can change in the blink of an eye. Following multiple incidents when it's busy can be a stressful undertaking and we appreciate the extra help.

Now you understand why the person on the other end of the line can sound a little high-strung during rush hour.

Why do you always say "all lanes are open," yet I'm stuck in slow traffic?

When we report that all lanes are open we mean that there isn't an incident, such as a broken down vehicle, in your way. It's just rush hour traffic. Most people can cope with normal day-to-day traffic, but incidents make a normal volume delay much worse.

I've been sitting in this delay for half an hour and you didn't mention it. Why not?

During rush hour traffic, almost every route near D.C. slows down in one place or another. Some days are worse than others. We try to offer the reassurance that there are no incidents blocking the major roads. But reporting on where specific delays "start and end" isn't always feasible as delays change by the second and are widespread at various times during the work week and weekends.

If the delay you're sitting in is worse than normal, it could be due to a nearby event, upcoming holiday or something else. We may not have mentioned it because we didn't know about it or how bad it is. Although we try to be everywhere at once, it's impossible. That's why we ask if you see something we're not reporting or to update us on something we are reporting, call us. Nothing beats a firsthand account of what's going on and that's why we welcome calls from listeners, who can fill in the blanks with information we don't know.

Why do you sometimes refer to "police activity" in your traffic reports? Can't you just tell us what's going on?

There are a number of reasons why we don't tell you what the police or fire department activity is. Police could be doing a routine truck inspection check or a sobriety check point. We don't want to tip off potential offenders to what's going on, but we want to alert the general public why there is a traffic tie up. Every day, in the D.C. area, we have "suspicious packages" that close streets. We don't want to create panic in the area every time this happens, so we call it police or fire department activity.

Why do you only report on Maryland traffic? Do you hate Virginia?

Our reports lead off with whatever traffic incident is impacting the most listeners in our area, whether it's in Maryland, Virginia or the District. Then we cover the rest of that state, before moving to another area.

Why do you only report on Virginia traffic? Do you hate Maryland?

See the question above.

Why can't you refer to a direction on the Beltway, instead of Inner and Outer Loop, which is confusing?

Yes, the Inner and Outer Loops of the Beltway can be confusing. However, the Beltway has an Inner and Outer Loop because it's a circle and changes direction. Technically, there are two stretches of all directions, north, south, east and westbound on Interstate 495 that are not related. Using the directions the Beltway travels would be very confusing! There could be an accident on southbound I-495 with a backup that stretches across westbound I-495 and onto northbound I-495, however it would not affect the other southbound, westbound or northbound I-495. Confusing, right?

For simplicity, Inner and Outer Loops were created and signed on the highway to help people identify which loop they're on and help traffic reporters explain to motorists what's going on. Think of it as clockwise and counter clockwise. At WTOP, we also try to use town names, such as "if you're traveling on the Outer Loop of the Beltway, from Greenbelt (I-495 North), around through Silver Spring and Bethesda (I-495 West), past I-270 and across the American Legion Bridge (I-495 South) into Virginia…"

We do that because we know how confusing directions on the Beltway are for people.

Why don't you report speed traps?

The main reason is that you shouldn't be speeding. The other reason is that we concentrate our reports on traffic problems, not where the speed traps are located. Speed traps cause delays, sometimes substantial delays, especially as highway volume builds. In this case we would report the delay and may blame it on "police activity."

See also the question about police activity.

Who has the right of way in a traffic circle?

First, let me explain why traffic circles were invented. They were invented to slow traffic down at busy intersections where traffic lights weren't needed.

Unless there are signs to the contrary, traffic already in the circle has the right of way, so slow down on your approach to the circle and enter when it is clear. Once you're in the circle, don't forget how to get out! To exit most circles, you have to be on the right.

Don't panic if you miss your way out, just ride around the circle one more time and work your way over to the right side of the circle. Remember, traffic circles are intended to slow traffic, so slow down and be careful.

Why don't people put their headlights on when it's raining or snowing?

We can't explain why people do what they do, but we can tell you what the law states. In Virginia and Maryland, it's the law to have your headlights on when your wipers are on. The District does not have that law. Regardless, it's common sense. During inclement weather, your goal should be to see and be seen. Headlights are used not only to see, but so that other drivers can see you. It may be the law in most states, but it's also common sense safety.

How do mile markers on roadways work?

Mile markers on highways are there so we know exactly where you are on a highway. This helps departments of transportation crews, tow trucks and first responders locate accidents and other hazards. The rule for north/south roads is that the mile markers begin at the southern end of the road and progress north.

On east/west highways, the mile markers begin at the western end and progress east. Most states have also converted exit numbers to match up with mile markers. Where's the exception to this rule?

The mile markers on the Dulles Toll Road and Dulles Greenway (Route 267) do not match up with its exit numbers. The New Jersey Turnpike's mile markers and the exit numbers don't match up since most people from New Jersey know the exit numbers of the highway between the Delaware Memorial Bridge (Exit #1) and the George Washington Bridge (Exit #16).

Is it true that highway numbers correspond with which direction they run?

It is true for most limited-access interstates and highways across the country but there are always exceptions! Odd numbered highways (i.e. Interstate 95, Route 1 and Route 29) travel north and south and even numbered highways (i.e. Route 50, Interstate 66 and Interstate 70) travel west to east. Are there exceptions? Yes, especially on a local level. Take Virginia Route 7, for example, which runs east and west.