Fender benders stall all

State wants drivers in minor accidents to get out of the way
by: KYLE GREEN, A federal study found that a quarter of “recurring” highway congestion is caused by accidents and other incidents such as blown tires and breakdowns. State and local transportation planners say people in minor accidents can ease the slowdown by moving their vehicles out of the way.

Regional transportation officials have a word of advice for anyone in a freeway accident not involving injuries - don't wait for the police to come and take a report. They have better things to do with their time, and insurance companies don't need police reports to process your claims anyway.

'If people can move their cars, they need to do so,' said Jon Makler, a transportation operations planning manager currently splitting his time between the Portland Office of Transportation and Metro, the regional government charged with approving transportation projects in the Portland area.

Makler is one of several regional transportation officials working on TransPort, a multijurisdictional committee working to better manage congestion by improving traffic management, incident responses and traveler information on area roadways.

One focus of the committee is reducing the amount of time cars involved in accidents block traffic. At the heart of this effort is the COMET, or Corridor Management Teams, incident response program that dispatches specially equipped trucks to breakdowns on area freeways.

According to Makler, since the COMET trucks first began responding to accidents in 1997, operators have been surprised by the number of motorists who refuse to move their vehicles until the police show up to take a report. On many occasions, Makler said, the vehicles are blocking traffic but are still drivable.

'A lot of times, the drivers insist they can't move until the police take a report. They can end up waiting a long, long time because that's just not a priority for the police,' Makler said.

The wait does not merely inconvenience the motorists involved in the accident, Makler said. According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, every minute a vehicle stops on the freeway backs up approaching traffic from three to seven minutes.

'That's really unfortunate,' said John Piper, a spokesman for the Oregon Insurance Division, who confirms that insurance companies do not need police reports to process noninjury traffic accident claims.

More cars are coming

TransPort is chaired by Dennis Mitchell, the Oregon Department of Transportation traffic manager for Region 1, which includes Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington, Columbia and Hood River counties.

According to Mitchell, the committee's work is especially important now because of the 1 million more people expected to move to the Portland area over the next 20 years. They are expected to increase motor vehicle traffic by around 40 percent and commercial truck traffic by more than 60 percent by 2025.

'We can't build our way out of congestion, so we have to become smarter about how we management traffic,' he said.

At the same time, Mitchell does not expect the program to reduce congestion.

'The goal is to keep things from getting any worse from year to year,' he said.

Other participating agencies include the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, the Washington State Department of Transportation, TriMet, and the Multnomah and Washington counties transportation departments.

The committee relies on information generated by a central Traffic Management Operations Center that collects and analyzes information on transportation conditions from a variety of sources, including sensors in the roadways, video cameras and police reports. It also works with the Intelligent Transportation Systems laboratory at Portland State University to analyze some of the data for long-range planning efforts.

Accident time adds up

A recent study by the Federal Highway Administration found that approximately 40 percent of 'recurring' congestion is caused by bottlenecks, and around 25 percent is caused by incidents, which include accidents, blown tires, overheating, mechanical breakdowns and even road debris.

According to the study, the remaining recurring congestion is caused by weather (15 percent), work zones (10 percent), special events (5 percent) and poor signal timing (5 percent).

According to Makler, the study supports the project's efforts to reduce congestion through a variety of quick-response and high-tech means. In addition to the COMET vehicles, the program includes the 118 ramp meters currently installed on area freeways, an ongoing effort to improve the timing of traffic signals, special equipment to allow TriMet buses running behind schedule to have longer green lights and better public warnings of poor road conditions.

The program also includes the designation of alternative transportation routes when freeways are blocked for any reason.

The first one is Southwest Barbur Boulevard, which has been designated as an alternative to a stretch of Interstate 5. Electronic detour signs have already been installed to direct drivers to Barbur when the freeway is impassable. The program is currently studying whether 82nd Avenue could serve as alternative for Interstate 205.

Mitchell expects the program to evolve as more information emerges from ongoing studies.

One idea already under consideration involves stationing tow trucks at key locations along freeways during morning and evening rush hours to hasten their responses to crashes and breakdowns. This is already being done in the Seattle and San Francisco areas, Mitchell said, and may make sense here.

For additional information, visit www.oregon.gov/odot/hwy/its.

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