GRIDLOCK GUY: The guide to and importance of knowing one’s location on I-285

Name a scarier circle than I-285. There are sure to be a few, but the 62-mile, imperfect loop around Atlanta does not often conjure positive connotations. The reasons for skepticism and angst about Atlanta’s Bypass are many: bad traffic, reckless drivers, and numerous work zones lead. But one that drivers should not overlook is geographical confusion.

In my 19 years with WSB Triple Team Traffic, I have fielded numerous calls in our 24-Hour Traffic Center, gathered incident info from 911 dispatchers, and listened often to the police and fire scanners. People - from regular drivers, to truckers, to first responders - very often do not know the direction they are traveling on the Perimeter.

I was in this boat in my opening months on the Traffic Team, as an 18 year-old in 2004. On my very first day, I had to follow the late Captain Herb Emory from WSB’s Midtown studios out to Fulton County Airport, where he would lift off in the WSB Skycopter for his afternoon flight. Day one was pretty rad.

The trip there was smooth. But when we parted our diverging ways, he had to give me very specific directions back to my home. This was before the popular use of GPS devices and a couple of years before widespread smartphone-use. I was armed with my mom’s flip phone (and her 2002 Dodge Intrepid) and an edict from the Captain: take I-20/eastbound to I-285/northbound and go all the way around the Inner Loop back to DeKalb County.

Captain Herb told me to find I-85 in DeKalb (Exit 33), then head south to my familiar Clairmont Road interchange (Exit 91).

I started out on I-20/eastbound for the majestic one-exit jaunt to I-285. Then I almost froze. There were signs pointing to I-85 for both ramp choices from I-285. I did not know then that one I-85 interchange was for Fulton County (Exit 61) and the other was my home exit in Spaghetti Junction. I managed to choose the correct I-285 direction - northbound - and then whipped all the way around to DeKalb.

My diversion from the directions came when I saw the first road that I knew I had driven on before: Buford Highway. I exited there, found a landmark I knew (then Value City), then actually turned around from there and found home.

My big brush with I-285 could have mirrored the laps that late Atlanta Braves pitcher Pascual Perez took in the heat of the team’s pennant race in 1982. New in town, Perez mistook I-85 (which he was supposed to take from his home to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Downtown Atlanta) for I-285. And he made multiple laps on the Perimeter, ceding his start in the night’s game to future MLB Hall of Famer Phil Neikro. Legendary AJC columnist Tim Tucker recapped his firsthand account of the night with hilarious detail in 2020.

GPS devices and geographical awareness can really aid drivers, but the turn-by-turn directions can keep drivers from really grabbing ahold of where they are.

The terms “Inner and Outer Loop” are used to define the side of I-285 on which one is driving, sans cardinal directions. Those directions change around the circle.

Former WSB Traffic reporter Angie Powell finally made the loop-IDs click for me. Pretending that the median wall of the entire Perimeter is a circle and accounting for Americans driving on the right side of the road, the Inner Loop is the clockwise or inside part of the circle. The Outer Loop runs counterclockwise or outside part of the circle.

Powell had to draw this for me. Lightbulb: on.

Captain Herb insisted we say both the direction and the side of the loop in our traffic reports, so people have multiple identifiers on this tricky orb.

I-285 also changes nominal directions five times, based on its shape. If only the state and local authorities could agree on what these are. Instead, trust the WSB Traffic Team’s authority.

Starting in Spaghetti Junction in DeKalb, I-285 changes from north-south to east-west, as the circle curves. Heading west into Cobb County, I-285 then switches back to north-south at I-75 (Exit 20). The Westside Perimeter does not change again until the I-85 interchange in College Park (Exit 61), approximately 20 miles south of I-75. I-285 switches to east-west there at I-85 near the Airport and goes a long span in that mode around to I-20 in DeKalb (Exit 46). Then I-285 switches again to north-south for another 15 miles back up to I-85 (Exit 33).

The signs sometimes have this wrong. Police officers often call it mistakenly, too. For example, many Cobb County responders often call the obviously north-south I-285 “east-west” at their exits below I-75: Cobb Parkway., Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta Road, and South Cobb Drive.

This gets even more confusing at the Fulton County lines, which is the Chattahoochee River. The Hooch hits I-285 twice and each is a Fulton-Cobb county line. The way to differentiate this is to properly say the directional name on I-285. I-285 runs east-west to the right of I-75 in Cobb and runs north-south below I-75. Calling the Perimeter at the River, just below South Cobb Drive, “I-285 east at the River,” is terribly confusing and plainly incorrect.

The Perimeter is intimidating and irritating. Drivers of every flavor should take some time to orient themselves with the bypass. When a motorist knows where they are and what way they are going, they are automatically more safe. First responders burn far too much time when given bad directions, while trying to find incidents. Seconds matter in emergencies.

But I can relate: I once was lost on I-285. But by the amazing grace of Captain Herb Emory and Angie Powell, I was found.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. Download the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App to hear reports from the WSB Traffic Team automatically when you drive near trouble spots. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.

Comments on this article





mobile apps

Everything you love about wsbradio.com and more! Tap on any of the buttons below to download our app.

amazon alexa

Enable our Skill today to listen live at home on your Alexa Devices!