CREWS SWING INTO ACTION
TO GET TRAFFIC FLOWING AGAIN
By Lowman S. Henry
It was a sunny, sultry early July afternoon as we made our way from Greensburg to Harrisburg across the forested mountains of central Pennsylvania. Independence Day weekend was coming to a close so traffic on the Turnpike was heavier than usual, but flowing smoothly. As we came upon the Tuscarora Tunnel, however, traffic slowed, then came to a complete halt.
Sitting so close to the tunnel, it was impossible to tell why traffic had stopped. As the minutes ticked by, people began to get out of their cars to walk around. Truckers with their CB radios learned that an accident had taken place some 14 miles ahead east of the Blue Mountain Tunnel. Clearly, we were going to be sitting still for some time.
Pick-up football games took shape along the roadside, lawn chairs appeared between the lanes and some took to roller blading as an alternative means of transportation. As minutes turned into hours though, people began to ask: "What are they doing that's taking so long?"
While we sat in the middle of America's first superhighway trying to stay cool, frantic activity was taking place at the Turnpike's communications center off Exit #19 near Harrisburg. The accident that caused the traffic jam in which we were sitting involved a fuel truck. Several people were injured in the accident, which meant Turnpike personnel were dealing with emergency medical crews, a hazardous material clean-up, removal of the wreckage from the highway, and, the traffic tie-up.
"When the call comes in that an accident has taken place we immediately notify Troop T of the Pennsylvania State Police who dispatch patrol cars to the scene," explained Ronald P. Frank, operations control center supervisor for the Turnpike. "We also immediately dispatch emergency medical personnel, a Turnpike maintenance crew and a tow truck."
The communications center is frequently notified of an accident via the emergency call boxes which are located at one mile intervals throughout the Turnpike system. Motorists can summon police, fire and emergency medical assistance. Motorists can also dial *11 and be put in immediate contact with the communications center.
Radio operators in the communications center try and learn as much as they can about the situation from the initial call. Once the State Police arrive on the scene, they radio a more thorough status report back to the center.
"Our top priorities are tending to the injured and traffic control," said Frank. "We immediately dispatch State Police and Turnpike safety patrols to warn motorists of the pending slow down."
While some patrols are working to ensure traffic safety, others are at the scene. Fire suppression and removing the injured are the first tasks, then debris must be cleared from the roadway. In the case of a hazardous materials spill, or even the presence of hazardous material, the communications center will call to the scene specialists who have been retained by the Turnpike to come in and clean-up or stabilize the materials.
"We then make sure all vehicles are towed and the roadway is cleared of debris so there isn't another accident," said Frank. In some cases, such as when portions of the medial barrier have been damaged, Turnpike maintenance crews must come in and make repairs before traffic can again flow safely through the accident zone.
When a major accident occurs, and/or if clean-up is going to take a long time, the Turnpike will put "Plan X" into effect. Plan X is a system developed to keep additional vehicles from entering the Turnpike and becoming part of the backlog. At times, some vehicles already on the Turnpike are required to exit to help relieve congestion.
"Since we are a limited access system, we don't let people get on the Turnpike at nearby interchanges until the traffic backlog has dispersed," Frank explained. "We give customers cards with maps and directions to use alternate routes. We also notify local police in those areas so they can deal with the additional traffic which flows through their towns."
The Turnpike is working on a plan to let traffic exit the highway through emergency gates which are located between interchanges. Future plans call for the installation of "slip" ramps in some areas. Such ramps would be located between interchanges and will ultimately be part of the Turnpike's electronic toll collection system. They will also be used to move traffic off the Turnpike when serious backlogs resulting from accidents occur.
The Turnpike is in the process of installing an Advanced Traveler Information System (see page one). The variable message boards and highway advisory radio facilities will be used to warn motorists of traffic tie-ups prior to their entering the Turnpike system.
Once the injured are taken to the hospital, wreckage and debris are removed and the highway is determined to be safe for travel, it still takes time for traffic to begin moving.
"It may only take 20 minutes to clean-up the accident site and get traffic moving again," observed Frank. "But it takes hours for the traffic backlog to clear."
In some areas, traffic backs up a mile a minute when an accident blocks the lanes. Getting traffic started again is a much longer process. "Sometimes people abandon their vehicles and we're faced with the task of towing them off the roadway. This delays traffic even further," said Frank.
So, if you ever find yourself caught in a backlog of traffic behind an accident site, you'll know that well-trained Turnpike emergency crews are working hard to handle the situation and to get traffic flowing as soon as is safely possible.