Image A lot of recent highway travel in the northeast has generated some thoughts on the nation's interstate system. Here are some of them.

Road Work Ahead...

...are the most dreaded words in the English language - at least in the USA. Probably no sign (with the possible exception of "Atomic Bomb Test Ahead") inspires such feelings of dread in the driver. He knows it means miles of brake-lights ahead and possibly hours of stop-and-go moving. This summer we spent hours inching past worksites that had closed down a lane for only a short stretch. In central Pennsylvania we crawled across I-80 for two hours on a Friday afternoon to get past 100 yards of repair. It was the same on other interstates.

We all know that roads must be repaired when they become unacceptably damaged or when they need widening or improvement. No one disputes that. The question is: when should such repairs be done? On lightly traveled roads, repairs can easily be made during the day because a lane closing will probably cause no backup - only a slowdown to 50 mph or so. But on heavily traveled roads, like I-80 through central PA, repairs should be made only during evening or night hours, except in cases of true emergency. Four o'clock on a Friday afternoon is no time for lanes to be closed on such roads. There must be a better way.

Highway administrators might argue that crews and contractors must be permitted to perform their tasks during daytime hours because they have families like everyone else. I appreciate the point, but it is not necessarily the only point to be made. People who use the roads have jobs, families and responsibilities they must tend to as well. They need to reach their destinations in a timely way; they depend on roads being open and traffic flowing freely. No one can help it if an accident slows traffic, but repairs are usually elective. Their scheduling should always favor the customer - i.e., the driver - not the service people who maintain the roads.

When a major repair must be done during the day in a hospital or other business, a substitute for the impacted space is arranged - another room, a hallway detour, or even another building - so business can proceed with as little disruption as possible. The same is sometimes done on highways. Lanes are redirected when repair or construction is likely to last for a considerable period. This is a lot of work, and it's expensive, so it isn't usually done for a repair lasting only a day or two.

The suitable alternative is for road crews to work during non-peak hours. I have seen night work sites illuminated by huge lights on stretches of the Capital Beltway that simply could not tolerate daytime lane-closings. The effect on traffic would be horrendous. For months, crews have set up those sites around 9 PM and dismantled them around 5 AM, until the work was done. I blessed those efforts every time I drove past them.

Switching to nighttime repair might be a difficult change for road-crews. I'm sorry, but that's too bad. Hospital cleaners have families, too, but they clean and maintain operating rooms and other treatment centers at night because daytime cleaning would impede the hospital's work. The same goes for cleaners of office buildings and many other kinds of support workers who cannot be allowed to disrupt business routines during the day. They work at night, too.

State and local highway administrators see no reason to change because they're OK with things as they are. They have always done it this way. But citizens need to help them see that they are "civil servants", not "civil masters". A switch to off-peak road repair is long overdue. (It will save a lot of gasoline and carbon-emissions, too.)

Cell Phones.

If half the drivers on the road were drinking from beer-cans as they drove, police would crack down. Why? Aren't those beverages legal? Surely you can take a drink in your car. But, of course, that's silly. Not every legal act can be done in your car while you are doing 65 on I-81. Sex isn't illegal, either (not yet), but... well, you get the idea. (Actually, I think it's been tried.)

Cell phones are now so ubiquitous that it's unremarkable to see the driver of the car next to you - or behind you, or in front of you - gabbing animatedly into a phone while driving at highway speeds. Often such drivers are half-aware (or less) of what is going on around them. They think their driving is unimpaired, but their performance belies it.

This week, while driving through New Jersey in the rain, I finally managed to pass an SUV doing 45 in one of the passing lanes on the Garden State Parkway. As I passed, I saw that the driver was talking on her phone. Glancing back a moment later, I saw 15 or 20 cars lined up behind her, trying to get by. She was in "cell phone mode" - a term that has already become part of our modern highway lexicon.

Examples of cell phone mode are legion. Everyone has a story - possibly excepting drivers who are, themselves, cell-phone mode drivers. Most deny categorically that their driving is in any way affected by talking on the phone. I have tried cell-phoning a few times, while driving, but I quickly realized that my mental acuity was not up to the task of concentrating on driving and concentrating on a phone call at the same time.

Recently I waited behind a right-turner who let numerous opportunities go by when he might have turned into the right lane, while traffic went by in two other lanes. He waited until no car was in sight, then turned at snail-speed. Driving past, I saw the phone against his ear. This is not driving. It is multi-tasking, and it is a recipe for disaster - like the wreck that killed five teen-aged girls recently. The driver was apparently text-messaging on her cell phone - a difficult task even when that's all you're doing - at the time of the accident. A momentary lapse of attention to the road cost those girls their lives and left their families with lifetimes of grief.

Cans of beer won't be abolished just because some idiots insist on chugging while they drive. We expect the cops to be tough on people who do this because it's risky. The cell phone can't be eliminated, either. But strong enforcement and stiff fines must teach drivers that there is a time to make calls and a time to drive. Those times are not simultaneous.

Boulevard Driving.

Boulevards are multi-lane roads that usually have multiple ways to enter and exit. Left turns are allowed, so drivers often hug the left lane for blocks before they plan to turn. The highway concepts of a passing lane and slower drivers staying to the right don't work on the boulevard.

What does this have to do with interstate highways? Many of them operate like boulevards for long stretches. Although left-lane exits are relatively few (but not unknown), many drivers act as if they plan to turn left very soon. Slower drivers don't necessarily stay to the right, and often the "passing lane" - which can hardly be called that any longer - has a driver going under the speed limit, followed by a mile-long line of cars wanting to pass him who are blocked by other slow drivers to the right. Sometimes those left-lane slowpokes are trucks trying to pass other trucks with a speed differential of 1 mph - or with no speed difference at all, causing them to drive maddeningly abreast for miles.

Naturally, all this causes other drivers to take chances in order to pass - driving fast on the right and ducking in ahead of a left-lane snail. The hair-raising maneuvers I have seen would fill a book. Most are successful, but not all.

A neighbor told me he used a long entry ramp to pass two lanes of slow-moving traffic. It turned out that a police car was leading the left-hand lane at exactly the speed limit. The officer stopped my neighbor and charged him with improper use of an entrance ramp. My neighbor countered that the officer had caused the violation - if it was one - by improper passing. The policeman said he was driving at the speed limit, so no one should have needed to get by. Obviously, my neighbor lost the argument.

I found the officer's attitude disturbing because it meant that the old concept of quick passing has been lost. When I learned to drive, the instructor taught me to pass quickly. Being next to another car at highway speeds is dangerous, so the time should be minimized. Everything within sensible bounds, of course, but goosing your speed by 10 mph. is not unreasonable for passing. "Step on it and go right by. Don't dawdle," he used to say.

Obviously, no one is teaching it that way any more - and even police officers don't believe in it. This essentially blesses boulevard driving on the interstate, where cars drive within a few feet of tractor-trailers for miles at a time. The least twitch from one of those monsters and you're nothing but hamburger and twisted metal.

Despite what that officer said, he is mistaken. Proper highway speed at a given moment depends on conditions. The limit posted on a sign is not necessarily the maximum speed ever allowed. It indicates the cruising speed for that stretch of road. Some drivers will drive slower, of course, which means that other drivers must pass to get by. Safe passing does not mean staying at the posted speed limit and taking 2 minutes to overtake a slower driver. That is unsafe passing. It is boulevard driving, and it does not belong on superhighways. American drivers need to relearn this.

Tolls.

"Toll plaza ahead" is another herald of doom on the road. Not because the tolls are so costly - although in some cases they are - but because they often cause massive traffic jams. In my opinion this is unwise, but states can do whatever they want about their local roads.

I object to tolls on the interstate, however. In the northeast the interstate system includes sections built by some states before the interstate era. Those states were allowed to continue charging tolls, even though the vast majority of interstate roads are free. The Pennsylvania and New Jersey Turnpikes, for example, are pre-interstate toll roads that now belong to the national interstate-numbering system.

So is the Delaware Turnpike - a 13-mile stretch of I-95 for which drivers pay a toll of $3.00. That's bad enough, but huge traffic jams invariably develop at the toll plaza because of heavy traffic and inefficient design. Last week it took us an hour to cover three miles to those booths in the mother of all traffic jams. There was no road problem other than inefficient tollbooth design that requires every driver to stop - even EZ-pass holders. The situation was outrageous, but local people must be used to it.

In New Jersey a few years ago, a movement arose to abolish tolls on the Garden State Parkway - a 172-mile state road stretching from Cape May to the New York border. Tollbooths were typically situated every 10-15 miles, depending on locations of exits and entrances. I thought losing the tolls a great idea, but savvy state officials saved their toll system by cutting the number of toll plazas and installing Express EZ-pass, which allows pass-holders to cruise through without stopping. Drivers know the Express lanes are always on the left. At some plazas the pass-reading mechanism is installed overhead, so there is no sensation of passing through a tollbooth. This decreases travel-time significantly. Delaware could learn something from it.

Beyond better toll-plaza designs and EZ-pass, however, there is a more fundamental question of the integrity of the interstate system. The original idea was a federal system of roads that would let us drive all over the country, toll-free. The roads serve a defense purpose too, in case military forces and materiel needed to be transported. High tolls for a short stretch of Delaware road that travelers find difficult to avoid were never part of the vision. Whatever the original agreement was, it's time for it to end. Times have changed. It should not take 80 minutes (and a $3.00 toll) to travel 13 miles of interstate highway.