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    If the summer vacation wasn’t over before, it is now. With Labor Day having come and gone, all schools are back and many people have returned from their long-term vacations. Post-Labor Day Atlanta traffic has been bananas, with high volume in some areas reaching greater heights than seen in the spring. And Gwinnett and DeKalb commuters last Wednesday morning saw a new height in the High Occupancy Toll lane on I-85/southbound.  » RELATED: Are toll lanes really the answer to Atlanta’s traffic mess? WSB Triple Team Traffic’s Mark Arum first reported the record as it jumped to $16.60, then $16.90, then finally the height of $17. The previous record was $15.50 for the long trip from Old Peachtree Road to Shallowford Road. Most drivers, however, do not take trips that length in the lanes.  Arum (who is the original Gridlock Guy, by the way) easily noticed the record, he told me, because the lane regularly hit the $15.50 mark for over a year. He monitors the I-85 toll pricing each day, as that is his normal sector he covers on 95.5 WSB and because he updates the ticker information with toll pricing on Channel 2 Action News. The State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) adjusts the pricing in the lane, based on volume. So when the price crossed the $16 barrier, his brow furrowed: I-85 did not seem worse to any worse to him on Wednesday.  “It stunk. But it was a normal day,” Arum told 95.5 WSB listeners on The Von Haessler Doctrine daily talk show. There were big issues on I-285 earlier in the morning, which definitely affected I-85/southbound. But those kinds of things also happened in the $15.50 era. So what made Wednesday a record-breaking day? “If volume in that lane increases significantly, the toll system will try to put pricing in to try and keep that lane flowing,” SRTA executive director Chris Tomlinson explained to Channel 2 Action News. “Our goal is to try and keep that lane moving at an average (speed) of about 45 mph.” But maintaining that reliable speed is hard and there does come a point where no reasonable price will thwart enough people from the lanes to keep them at 45 mph. More than likely, SRTA realized that with a new traffic season underway and an ever-increasing population, they needed to attempt to set a slightly higher water mark to at least try to lighten the volume in the lane. SRTA (not GDOT) opened the I-85 Express Lanes in 2011 to a great outcry, and the board has changed certain pricing rules multiple times. People remain outraged that the formerly free H.O.V. lanes, which allowed in only carpools, buses, and motorcycles, suddenly cost money. With the now-toll lanes hitting a record price, the same complaints flashed brighter than brake lights again. “Why do we have to pay for a lane that our taxes already built? That’s theft!” There are several things wrong with that argument. First, the toll lane is technically less exclusive now than it was as an H.O.V. lane. Before, vehicles had to have multiple passengers or meet other requirements to drive in those lanes. Now, cars with three or more passengers and buses can still use the Peach Pass lanes on I-85 for free, as long as they change the toll mode to note that status on their Peach Pass accounts. Both they and any paying driver can use the lanes. That taxed lane is now open to more people. Another foil on these complaints is the idea that the money charged for the lane only goes to paying for it or that the lane was done being paid for. The money from the H.O.T. lane (and other new toll lanes around the state) is used for multiple transportation initiatives, as gas tax revenues have decreased with more fuel-efficient vehicles. Even though the gas tax has raised, Georgia needs more funding for roads that the growing population is wearing down. That wear and tear also means a road is never really done being totally paid for. Paving needs to be done on freeways every seven or so years; that money has to come from somewhere. Arum, the late Captain Herb Emory, and I met with SRTA officials when these H.O.T. lanes opened, and they said the purpose of the lanes was to relieve congestion in the general purpose lanes and provide a separate lane with more reliable trip times. Arum told Von Haessler that the lanes have provided some reprieve: “If the population had remained the same, they definitely would have helped.” Arum himself has used his Peach Pass on a Friday afternoon when heading north out of town and finds them totally worth the cost. Added capacity improves the ride for all commuters, even those who choose to ride for free in the general lanes. “The only people that should be mad about the H.O.T. lane are the people that used to carpool in the old H.O.V. lane,” Arum said, since I-85 carpools with only two passengers are not exempt from the cost. Some cities have tolls that literally are dozens of dollars for each trip. I had to pay a handful each time I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco on my June trip there. We still have far lighter tolls than most places. So while $17 is more than even I would pay on a normal day, and the increase in cost may seem arbitrary, it’s not really that bad. And drivers can skip the cost by choosing a different lane. This is the government using a free-market approach to a growing traffic problem.  » RELATED: New record toll rate set on I-85 express lanes in Gwinnett County Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.
  • Of the different automobile innovations in recent times, using an app to start a car may not be the most astonishing. But this convenience is starting to become standard on newer vehicles, as most major automakers offer apps that can connect to their newer models. The existence of such makes the hands-free experience much more seamless and eliminates the extra clutter of keys. » RELATED: Georgia’s distracted driving law turns 1: Has anything changed? Lincoln’s 2020 Aviator SUV  is one of the latest to offer this feature. Lincoln offers The Lincoln Way app, which already allows users to monitor tire pressure and oil life, look up navigation information, and schedule service appointments. That app will have an adjacent Phone As A Key app that allows some next-level features. This latest update will allow users to also start and lock their vehicles within a certain range of them. The driver will no longer need the key fob in their pocket, purse, or armrest to start it. This technology will work off of the Lincoln’s Bluetooth network within 130 feet of each automobile and then can work off of wifi or the cell network outside of that range. It will also allow different drivers to save seat and mirror settings. These features match perfectly with Lincoln’s luxury branding. But some may wonder about the safety concerns with such an effortless technology. First, only four digital keys are allowed per vehicle, and each one has its specific driver profile settings. This prevents anyone with that same app from syncing up to that car and taking off with it. There’s also a valet mode that allows others to drive it and automatically disables when the drivers gets back into it. There is a backup plan for if a driver loses their phone. The Aviator has a place to enter a code on the door to unlock it and another ignition code inside the car. Inputting codes on car door locks has been in place on cars since at least the 1990s. These passcodes are probably helpful things to bury somewhere in the wallet, just in case. Another safety concern that already exists for keyless-ignition, push-start vehicles is remembering to turn them off. This happened back in June to an Illinois couple, when they got out of their car and mistakenly left it running in their garage. The fumes seeped into their house and became a silent killer. Not only are fumes silent, but newer cars are far quieter than before. When drivers no longer have to physically take their keys out of the car, leaving it running is a possibility. Now with no physical push-start button requirement, that hazard potentially increases. Electric vehicles are almost silent, but also do not emit fumes. And arguably the most cutting edge of those, Tesla, has deployed this phone-centric innovation. “I absolutely love it,” Tesla owner Jon Godwin told the AJC. “Don’t have to pull out the phone and open the app either. Just walk up to the car and go.” Godwin said that he can also remote-start the car from anywhere in the world, if someone is borrowing it. And he can even honk the horn from the app, which may be more useful for practical joking than anything else. Godwin does explain one drawback: forgetting to bring along more analog technology. “Because I didn’t need the keys for the car, I kept forgetting to bring them to open other things! (My wife Charissa and I) ended up getting a keyless lock for the house, too. And I keep my keychain in the glovebox for any other time I may need them. But now I only reach for a set of keys once in a blue moon.” Godwin said that Tesla provides two sleek credit cards to use as physical keys, but he has only used them once in his 10 months of ownership. And the Tesla pretty much works like a glorified golf cart; its engine doesn’t actually turn on until the driver presses the pedal. And it turns off when it’s motionless and the driver exits. This means that it won’t just stay activated by mistake and run out of battery. App-starting a vehicle may not solve many traffic issues, but the convenience makes the driving experience better. Drivers potentially can take better care of their vehicles with all of the diagnostic data available in the app. They can can transfer navigation destinations between the app and the digital dash infotainment center (which also is available via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto with other compatible mapping apps). And being able to start and lock the car a bit quicker can at least shorten the commute by a few seconds. As long as people remain mindful enough to turn off their cars and aren’t using the app with their hands behind the wheel, there really aren’t many downsides to phones replacing keyfobs.  » RELATED: Don't make this huge mistake with your car key fob Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.
  • Last week’s column on e-scooters galvanized plenty of reactions. Most people emailed in with their ire about scooter riders and their leaving the electric devices all over the place like litter. But one Twitter exchange took a more defensive approach. User and reader Marian Lou wondered why faulty street design wasn’t part of my list of grievances. She suggested to her followers that Darin Givens from ThreadATL be allowed some time to share his views. Givens and I were both intrigued by the idea.  » RELATED: GDOT completes Cedar Ridge Road Bridge replacement two days early I wanted to learn exactly what street design problems existed and how fixing them would improve the commute, so I reached out to Givens, who co-founded ThreadATL. This organization is a group that advocates for smart design and planning policy in the City of Atlanta.  Givens started his advocacy after harrowing experiences pushing his son in a stroller on Ponce de Leon Ave. in Virginia Highlands. Sidewalks were in bad shape and drivers turned angrily in front of them in crosswalks. He moved into the City of Atlanta from Cobb County.  'I thought when I moved to the city, it would be pretty easy to get around,' Givens recalled, thinking that walking in the city certainly would be easier than even using mass transit. 'And I found out that just wasn't the case and that drivers were often pretty hostile to people who were not in cars.' So Givens started studying urban design as a hobby and began understanding what policies work in other cities. Then he began pushing for these types of plans in Atlanta. One of the biggest problems Givens sees is simply with the inefficient use of space on and around the roads. 'We cannot widen these streets really any more, because there are buildings up against them. So what we need to do is rethink how we use the width of these streets.' Givens noted the undoubted spatial efficiency of putting 50 people on one MARTA bus, which takes many vehicles off the roads and out of parking spaces. But ThreadATL's main focus is even simpler: optimizing street design to allow for safer pedestrian and bike-use. Overall, they want to reduce trips in cars.  Let's stop there - you've probably heard this urbanism train of thought before. Reducing car trips by taking to mass transit is a great goal in Atlanta, but the citizens and MARTA still have a lot of changes to make to make MARTA more viable to many. Givens and his group espouse another transportation strategy that gets less press.  'I feel like the biggest thing we can do is to reduce car speeds in this city, one way or the other,' Givens said, stating he and other advocates in this realm think all city street speed limits should lower to 25 miles per hour. 'The lower the speed you're going in a car, the less of a chance you have for that impact with a pedestrian or e-scooter or bicycle rider to be a fatal impact.'  We cover that concept every back to school season, as AAA data shows that pedestrians are far more likely to die at a 35 mph impact than 25.  Givens thinks the city could be better stewards of transportation funds. Instead of spending $33 million on the Northside Drive pedestrian bridge, he said they should spend money on smaller street improvements, such as narrowing vehicle lanes. 'Wider car lanes generally result in higher car speeds. In narrower lanes, drivers can drive more slowly and carefully.' This adjustment, Givens said, would then allow for construction of bike (and e-scooter) lanes without taking vehicle lanes away or impossibly widening the roads.  Givens looked out his condo window onto Ralph McGill Blvd., as he talked. He said the road is four, wide lanes and passing vehicles take advantage of that space. 'Every night, I mean, it's like they are drag racing out there. Cars are just flying out there. And this is a street that my son walks on.' Givens' point is that narrowing lanes will reduce those speeds, make the road more multi-modal (different types of transportation), and make the environment safer for pedestrians.  Givens and ThreadATL not only appeal to local leaders and administrators, but also neighborhood associations. Some of those neighborhood groups have been vehemently against bike lanes and other more urbanist measures, because of the traffic they fear such changes will create. Atlanta's adherence to car culture could be the biggest obstacle to reducing car trips and trying new ways to commute. But there are difficulties in making the switch. MARTA doesn't go a lot of places and can take longer than driving. Bicycle lanes don't exist in many areas, making rides less safe. And riding a bike in general is not everyone's cup of tea. Walking takes a longer time and more energy and sidewalks are not in great shape at all.  This is why Givens thinks that Atlanta could better spend transportation money and divert more to building 'complete streets' with narrower lanes, bike lanes, smart traffic lights, HAWK pedestrian signals, and more. Having these would at least encourage people to make some changes more easily.  In this same vein, Georgia Commute Options' 'Cear the Deck' campaign this week urges employers to sign up and allow employees to work remotely or to promote carpooling. They do this in an effort to reduce single vehicle occupancy. Last year's campaign yielded over 1,200 parking spaces saved.  The efforts and passion of Givens and people and organizations like him are necessary. Atlanta simply cannot grow and only cater to cars. Both the economy and the environment demand us to be inventive with our travels. But we have to be willing to take that risk. On another note, we cannot only advocate for travel outside of cars. The new and the old have to coexist to move the most people, the most safely, and in the least amount of time.  » RELATED: Work at I-285 and Ga. 400 means traffic hassles in north metro Atlanta Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.
  • With more and more kickstands flipping up on electric scooters in different pockets around Metro Atlanta, especially the capital city itself, the laissez-faire feel of the whole craze has hit a tipping point. The City of Atlanta, under increasing pressure to further regulate e-scooters after the fourth Metro Atlanta rider died last week, has taken the first steps at such. City officials announced Thursday a ban on e-scooter ridership between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m. Three of the four scooter deaths have occurred in this time frame. Expect this move to be only a stop-gap change, as more has to fall in place for e-scooters to grow and coexist with other forms of transportation. Atlanta first started trying to curb scooters in January, when the city banned the scooter-riding on sidewalks, instituted a 15 mph speed limit, and levied a $12,000 annual permit fee for e-scooter vendors. And the city has gotten more strict in enforcing the sidewalk ban in recent times, with violators on the hook for up to a $1,000 fine. But these initial stabs at trying to make both scooter riders and sidewalk pedestrians safer obviously didn’t go far enough. In the months since, the number of riders has grown and so have complaints. Pedestrians find the scooters annoying and dangerous, as more aggressive or flippant riders zigzag in and out of crowds. Those sudden moves increase the danger for both parties. Combine this with the fact that e-scooters now are banned from sidewalks and the annoyance level finds another height. But with legal scooterists now taking to streets and bike lanes, they find themselves in more danger. With no skill level required for a scooter patron and no helmet requirement (helmets are suggested, but not included on e-scooters), scooter riders are seemingly even more in danger in the street. So pedestrian safety improved at the cost of the safety of scooter riders. This is easily quantified by the fact that all four scooter deaths have taken place since scooters were banished from the sidewalks. Atlanta has now tried to stymie the increasing hazards by eliminating nighttime e-scooter-renting and riding when conditions are more dangerous and when people are more likely to use the handy bi-wheeled, low-riders to bar hop. And maybe this can at least stop the increase in injuries and deaths. But this doesn’t address the rest of the problems or maybe even the meat of the e-scooter controversy. Where are these things supposed to go? Atlanta cannot feasibly create scooter-only lanes everywhere. Heck, there aren’t even enough bicycle lanes around town for that more established transit vessel. Outside of the dangers of scooter riders being so close to passing motor vehicles unprotected, being mixed in with faster-moving and better-protected cyclists isn’t exactly a recipe for safety. There just doesn’t seem to be a great place for these scooters to operate. When the scooters aren’t in operation, riders dispense them all over the place, left to the mercy of entrepreneurial fellow citizens to gather them in bulk and charge them. As nimble, convenient, and modern as this may be, it does create a blight for many. And the responsibility for scooter operating companies seems very low. Their main overhead is the scooters themselves and then the apps that receive payments and activate the units. One solution to the haphazard scooter disposals could be requiring docks or racks for all e-scooters. But this certainly would be a major buzz-kill on the convenience level of this technology, which allows ridership of any distance. But the docking system works well for bike-share services, like Citi Bike. Enforcement, however, would be quite difficult and would more than likely fall upon the different operators to penalize customers with charges for not following this theoretical docking policy. And the docks themselves could also be aesthetically lacking and logistically challenging. Would all the e-scooter companies make their docks interchangeable, or would there have to be different docks for each company? There are more questions than answers going forward for the e-scooter craze. Not only Atlanta, but other Metro cities will have to decide in their own ways how to handle them as they spread to other city centers. Maybe scooters could soon return to sidewalks and BeltLine passing rules could be in place: the fast go to the left and the slow to the right. But e-scooter success takes cooperation of everyone, not the least of which being the highly criticized riders. One fact is certain — the status quo cannot and will not remain. Turnbull and Smilin’ Mark McKay discuss the e-scooter ins and outs on their most recent WSB Traffic Podcast. Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.
  • Outside of the Hands-Free Georgia Act changes in 2018, the road rule that seems to draw the most confusion from “Gridlock Guy” readers is about passing school buses. In 2018, Georgia legislators essentially liberalized when oncoming vehicles could pass stopped school buses as a concession for allowing automated cameras to catch violators. The new rule went into effect last July 1st - the same day as the stricter distracted driving rules; it lasted less than eight months.  » RELATED: Legislators take aim at school bus law they say endangers students On February 15th, 2019, newly inaugurated Governor Brian Kemp signed a revision into law that brought back the tougher regulations for oncoming vehicles. The 2018 law had eliminated the need for a raised or grassy median to be in place for oncoming vehicles to pass a school bus with its stop arm extended. Very simply, the 2019 revision has brought back that requirement for a center divider. This was Gov. Kemp’s first signing in his new post: in with the new, in with the old. The 2018 law change had caused confusion, as drivers on busy roads still continued to stop in the opposite direction of buses. Then groupthink persisted. When some people stopped unnecessarily, others stopped also, so as to not have appeared to be in violation. The herd caused people to doubt their own knowledge of the laws. It was a mess. One reader wrote in to describe this mess on Highway 9 in Roswell during morning drive. They, of course, were hoping that people would obey the 2018 version of the law and that traffic would start moving better. Alas, now people again must stop on any road that doesn’t have some sort of median divider. Child safety was the main concern of advocates for this reversion. Although school buses normally offload their precious cargo on the same side of the road as the actual stop, vehicles speeding by at 35 mph or more in the opposite direction seemed to be a recipe for disaster. Gov. Kemp’s Senate Bill 25 signature put the rule changes into effect immediately. So the rules actually got stricter in the middle of the spring semester. But the new school year warrants both a reminder of this change and a grander focus on school-zone safety this month. With 56 million children heading back to school, AAA again launches their “School’s Open — Drive Carefully” campaign. Pretty straightforward, right? The auto safety organization’s data shows that afternoon driving in school zones may require even more attention: nearly a third of all child-pedestrian fatalities occur between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. One factor in this is likely that roads are simply busier when school adjourns than when it starts each morning. Nonetheless, this is a sobering statistic. “We are aware of the risk to children in and around school zones,” says Sasha Marcinczyk, Georgia Field Vice President, AAA — The Auto Club Group, on why AAA has championed this campaign since 1946. “If Georgia motorists slow down and stay alert, they can save lives.” That notion is certainly why the first of AAA’s seven safety tips is about watching school-zone speed. Pedestrians hit by vehicles at 25 mph (the normal school-zone speed) are two-thirds more likely to survive being struck by a vehicle than at 35 mph. If that stat doesn’t prompt someone to drive with an egg shell under their throttle, none will. Other AAA back-to-school driving safety tips including eliminating distractions behind the wheel, being extra careful when driving in reverse, reminding teenagers of driving risks (crashes are the number -one killer of teens and most occur between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.), coming to complete stops at stop signs and lights, and watching for bicycles. AAA also reminds people to also be on the lookout for its School Safety Patrollers. Around 654,000 school children in this program help remind commuters, parents — and other students — to be mindful of each other and safe. Sometimes schools are hidden atop hills or around curves, so Safety Patrollers with their bright yellow or orange belts really stand out and remind those passing by that they are in a school zone. Whether around buses or schools, we all have a responsibility to keep children and each other safe. Remember in most cases that vehicles must stop around loading buses. And don’t forget the importance of minding speeds and distractions near schools. A small change in speed or a small lapse in attention can be the difference in life or death.  » RELATED: Excitement, fear abound as some metro Atlanta schools open Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.
  • Driving with more functionality and conveniences behind the wheel, but also less distractions seems like a choice at divergent paths. That isn’t necessarily true, as newer technology features more voice commands and a sleeker integration into the bigger and bigger screens in vehicle infotainment systems. But recent AAA studies find that while these digital dashboards get better, they still cost far too much brain power for drivers.  » RELATED: Study: Georgia cellphone law reduced distracted driving While in-vehicle navigation, music, and texting may be built-in to the dashboards and hands-free, they still take drivers’ attention off the road. AAA’s most recent study that measured drivers’ maneuvers with both the technology and driving did so on about two dozen different vehicle models. It not only measured how distracted people are overall with this technology, but also which vehicles’ infotainment systems were most and least distracting.  These studies found that, on average, a person is distracted for 40 seconds when programming navigation and that navigation and voice-to-speech (hands-free) texting are the most cognitively demanding tasks on these systems. The studies also show that Apple CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto are easily more safe and less demanding than the various systems that manufacturers use.  Sygic is a worldwide GPS company that hopes to become a part of these infotainment systems. The 15-year old Slovak company, which boasts 200 million downloads of its navigation app of the same name, is hoping to extend the idea of hands-free to another realm of the navigation experience: crash and road obstruction-reporting.  Sygic Senior Global PR official Marek Lelovic said that the app will eventually be able to use the camera on a driver’s phone or that is already built into a vehicle to sense crashes, construction, stalls, and other road problems.  'Artificial intelligence will not only recognize it, but will also warn other users,' Lelovic explained. He said that the traffic info on this app will eventually be more accurate than competitors Google and Waze, because it can instantly get the data that the cams give it, from surrounding Sygic users, and from GPS titan TomTom. Lelovic said they are still working on ways to eliminate duplicate reporting of wrecks (a big problem that Waze has) and they hope that by next year they can have this technology more perfected and used by more commuters in the U.S.  Another Sygic feature is the augmented reality of the route, as opposed to a digitized map. 'We use augmented reality to show you the route in the real world,' Lelovic said. This innovation will overlay road names and other route info onto a view of the roads that looks more similar to Google Earth or Street View.  The WSB Traffic Team released the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App two years ago and we continue to work on some updates we would like to make the experience even easier to use with minimal distractions. For those that haven’t used it, the app’s biggest feature is our automatic audio traffic reports that play automatically (when you’re running the app in the background while you’re driving) when you drive near a big traffic problem. We also send push notifications to different geographical regions when bigger problems break out. And reporting crashes is as simple as pushing the phone button and calling the WSB 24-Hour Traffic Center.  We still very much value traffic experts - actual humans - to process and vet this information and decide what is best and most pertinent for commuters.  There is no doubt that in-vehicle technology is continuing to improve, including ours. The idea of apps automatically detecting wrecks is the next step in decreasing distractions. But for every feature added, that’s a new item for drivers to look at and consider. As motorists, we need to do our best to decide what really is worth having at our fingertips when driving. Maybe making a call is, but not a hands-free text. Maybe eliminating reading emails hands-free is a way to minimize distractions. The conveniences will keep expanding. But heed AAA’s warning on trying to use them. Having the world at one’s fingertips is tempting, but the thing between those fingers - the steering wheel - is the most demanding and vital tool and responsibility.  » RELATED: Georgia's distracted driving law: Have you put down your phone? Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.
  • Stories and headlines often precede most major holidays about the best and worst times to travel. The large banks of data that firms like INRIX, Waze, and Google collect can be extremely useful in tracking past behavior and informing our present and future. Motorists plan around trends and have more data than ever to do so. But data is only useful if applied within context. » RELATED: Atlanta ranks among America’s ‘most congested’ cities The recent July 4th weekend came with its own headlines about traffic trends. AAA anticipated nearly two million more motorists would hit the road, and more than 40 million would drive. But within their holiday news release came this surprising revelation from travel data firm INRIX: the worst time to travel for the July 4th weekend was supposed to be July 5th from 5-7 p.m. This seemed very much counterintuitive. This past July 4th was a Thursday, meaning traffic data was predicting that the busiest time to travel would be a Friday afternoon. Friday afternoon traffic before holidays is generally awful, with PM rush hours that start and peak very early, but that usually ends early. Recent July 4th holidays have happened midweek, so many people not taking most or all of those weeks off would have to return on a July 5th. This trend is what informed traffic data to spell July 5th as a busy travel holiday. Data is a prism and all sides need examining to make the proper judgment. One beam of refraction seemingly left unseen in this data dump is the day of the week the holiday fell upon and how that would influence driver decision making differently. With Independence Day at the end of the week, that meant people were much more likely to take a four- or five-day weekend and extend the holiday. In fact, PM drive on July 3rd was more like a pre-holiday Friday. The roads got busier around lunch and stayed thick into the evening. Let the weekend begin! But if the weekend was on, why would it end on a Friday afternoon? This report brought news organizations (including the three for which I work) to run the headline suggesting that the worst traffic would be a time when people would be dead-center in the middle of their holiday. The WSB Traffic Team was fully staffed for Friday afternoon, just in case. Here’s what happened: The Friday PM commute wasn’t heavier than normal. It was actually far lighter than normal, just as the morning commutes generally were that week. There was no PM drive. The ride on I-75 in Henry County wasn’t even that slow. The only real delays anywhere in Atlanta were because of wrecks. The robots guessed wrong. In fact, the worst travel period of the July 4th holiday was what we suspected it to be. Saturday and especially Sunday afternoons saw droves of people marching up and down I-75 in the McDonough-Stockbridge area. People leaving town, returning, and passing through stopped it up. And this caught those going merely by headlines and trends off guard. So the lesson here is that we should always question headlines, studies, stories, and data and hold them up against common sense. If any headline causes you to raise your eyebrows, read the whole story. If it still doesn’t sit right, consider what factors the story or study may have missed. Frankly, more media outlets (including my own) would do themselves better to question studies before writing them into stories and presenting them as facts. Fortunately on News 95.5/AM750 WSB, Atlanta’s Morning News host Scott Slade and I talked on the air briefly about if we thought roads would be that bad in that 5-7 p.m. window on July 5th. We each expressed our skepticism and said why we did not. The other lesson learned in this missed prediction is again that raw data is nothing without the proper analysis and filter of common sense. Sure, our sense can be wrong and data has proven that. But traffic statistics have often times come presented as sheer fact and have conflicted each other. Several years ago, there were two studies just months apart that ranked how bad Atlanta’s traffic was. One said Atlanta had one of the top 10 worst commutes in the world. The other said that Atlanta’s rush hours were 12th-worst in the U.S. While those studies are fun to read and brag or moan about, they make little difference on our commutes themselves. Their results were so far apart that the studies just look silly. There are all sorts of ways to measure bad traffic and they can each produce different results. So just as we should with any bit of information, we need to hold them against what we know and expect before accepting them as fact. A little bit more critical thinking around the July 5th commuting data might have made for some different, more accurate headlines and conclusions. » RELATED: Atlanta's traffic mess: More solutions from our readers Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.
  • Atlanta has seen its fair share of roadway oddities. Having a growing populace and increasing traffic volume only increases the likelihood of everything, including the eccentric and memorable road interruptions. What transpired on I-285 near Ashford Dunwoody Road Tuesday evening was memorable not just for what happened, but for how people reacted in that carnal instant. » RELATED: PHOTOS: Weird things that have snarled Atlanta traffic An armored car lost almost all of its $175,000 haul on I-285/westbound (Outer Loop) near the Perimeter Mall exit, when its side door somehow opened. Talk about a payload. As the greenbacks flew and landed in the right lanes, the emergency lane, and the nearby woods, motorists pulled all cattywampus to the shoulder and even in the lanes and began helping “clean the mess”. Well, not really. Some drivers in the area saw a payday and they must have figured the gains were worth the risk. They stopped in the middle of I-285 without protection and started grabbing whatever flying denominations of bills they could find. The scene had to be surreal to just about anyone who saw it in person. The videos that passersby shot were quite striking, but for multiple reasons. The sheer stupidity and thoughtlessness of stopping in traffic to grab anything is hard to put into words. I-285 is a live field of play. It’s a hot pit road (in racing parlance). Walking in the middle of or, in some cases, on the shoulders of freeways should be given the same treatment as a fan streaking at a game. Doing so not only risks the lives of those outside of their vehicles, but it puts into peril those swerving to avoid them. Unless absolutely necessary, people need to stay in their vehicles on interstates and busy roads. The time of day that this debacle took place makes exiting vehicles even more dangerous. The cash started flying at around 8 p.m., meaning that PM drive was effectively over. While exiting cars is a terrible idea during the slow grind of a high commuting hour, doing this when traffic is back up to speed is even more ridiculous. Reaction windows are far less, impacts are harder, and carnage can be greater. Playing as children at the breaking of the great freeway piñata could have easily resulted in these people ending up more like used piñatas than sugar-buzzed eight-year olds. But the real layer of interest in this post-evening rush hour money grab is people’s snap reactions in this moment of surprise and ecstasy and then the days following. To those who stopped to gather the liberated bounty and maybe even to you hearing the story, the first thought might simply have been, “Free money!” Once that money left the truck, it must have been free, public domain like the lyrics and melody of “Happy Birthday.” Not at all. Fits and the Tantrums’ “Moneygrabber” would be the more appropriate song. The money may have seemed harmless to take because it didn’t come directly from the hands to which it belonged. People picking up the contents of an armored car don’t feel like they are taking money from the actual person whose bank account it belongs to or the businesses or banks from which the money came. They don’t think that the armored car company or the insurance company they use has to somehow recoup that loss. It’s just free money from a faceless entity spewing in the wind, landing harmlessly for some people who obviously need it more. Another thing driving drivers to grab money that doesn’t belong to them may be the seeming veil of anonymity. This same foggy barrier between ourselves and the outside world is what causes us to act far more aggressively behind the wheel than in person. Pulling over on I-285 and quickly grabbing a grand or two of cash seems like a far better endeavor when there is a four-wheeled escape pod close by and no one around you knows who you are. Dunwoody Police might, however. Dunwoody authorities have asked the public nicely to return the cash they found. Since the armored car stopped, the police know who the money belongs to. And they have said that anyone who turns in the money can do so without penalty … for now. But they also said that they have video and photos of tag numbers, ripping down that anonymity veil that the money-hungry thought they had. Although they probably won’t ever be able to tell how much money each driver in the videos got, that threat could hopefully prompt some people to at least return some of the unexpected bounty back to its rightful owners. As of the time of this writing, less than $5,000 had been returned — less than 3%. That unfortunately says a lot about the respect and duty that some people lack. But it also says a lot about their shortsightedness regarding not just property, but safety. Their selfish decisions to stop in traffic put themselves and those around them in danger. And they did this just to essentially loot the misfortune and mistake of the armored car operators. Atlanta, Dunwoody, Perimeter drivers — we can do better than this.  » RELATED: Another $125 returned to police after $175K armored truck spill on I-285 Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.
  • July 1st marked the one-year anniversary of the Hands-Free Georgia Act. Lawmakers, led by Rep. John Carson (R-Marietta), added a layer of rules to a previous 2010 distracted driving measure. Most basically, the tougher law is meant to take the phones out of drivers’ hands and crack down on other, more involved features of mobile phone use behind the wheel. With a year now under the controversial measure’s seat belt, I took to Twitter to take peoples’ temperatures on how they obeyed changes.  » RELATED: Distracted driving crackdown about reinforcement, not revenue I posted a poll on my personal Twitter account, asking people to rate how well they followed the new distracted driving rules in the past year. The extremely unscientific results, 187 votes to be exact, might have shown more about human nature than actual reality.  41% or 76 people said “Yes, I’m very cautious.” Anecdotally, I feel like less than 41% of the drivers I see behave within complete compliance of the revised hands-free law. The flaws of human nature may have both bolstered peoples’ opinions of themselves and slighted my own about other people. We are often not very objective judges of things.  Stats compiled by AJC reporters David Wickert and Kristal Dixon show that the law is starting to achieve the desired results, but also plenty of people are getting punished for it. GSP has written nearly twice as many distracted driving tickets in the first half of 2019 than the second half of 2018. They have given about 25,000 total and had a warning grace period up until October 1st after the law went into effect. Atlanta Police say they have written over 17,000 tickets since last year. Just last month, GSP, Cobb and Marietta police joined forces to nab 170 distracted drivers in just over two-and-a-half hours.  These large numbers of tickets may help prove the notions that drivers have about other drivers, that many people violate the law. But it curbs another anecdotal observation, that the law is not nearly enforced enough. Officers seem to be writing more tickets than we thought. 32%, or 60 people, in my informal Twitter poll said that they follow the new rules most of the time. I actually thought this number would lead the results. 16%, or 30 people, said they only check their phones at red lights, and 11%, or 21 people, said, “Nope. No one stops me.” At least those last ones were honest. While positive results have to plane out at some point, Georgia appears to be gaining benefits from the heftier cellphone laws in the first year. Roadway fatalities are decreasing. Wickert and Dixon’s AJC report also shows that Georgia auto insurance claims have lessened since the implementation of the new law. Other factors could drive these results, such as modern cars being made safer, but the new laws seem to have an effect. Even law-enforcement officers say that they have noticed people being more lax about distracted-driving laws than when the discussion about the Hands-Free Act was more top of mind in 2018. But officers also are getting better at spotting violators, and the revised rules make nabbing spacey motorists easier. Despite my advocacy for the rules, I’ve been open about my slipping into old habits. I sometimes check my phone (while in its dashboard holster) at lights. The biggest change for me is that I never hold it and always use my Bluetooth/FM adapters. That all makes my driving safer than how I drove before. But I need to follow the rules better. Remember that the law sets a low bar and doesn’t outlaw or totally prevent being distracted. Animated conversations with a passenger or eating can distract drivers. Trying to get a hands-free, Bluetooth adapter to work or sending a hands-free text can be distracting in and of themselves. And those are legal. We shouldn’t strive to drive more attentively because the law says so; we should drive alert to preserve our lives and those of our peers. Respondents to my hands-free Twitter poll seemed to rate themselves higher than how most people behave. That could be because my Twitter followers are more likely to be in-tune with traffic laws or are older and more likely to follow the law. Or this positive result could be very simply that we judge ourselves less harshly than we judge others. More than likely, all these things are a bit true. At least the more reliable stats show that Georgia’s roads are now safer. But there is still a long way to go.  » RELATED: Cops pose as utility workers to catch distracted drivers Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.
  • Sit with the hypothetical idealist. A leading thinker from one sphere could leave one walking away convinced that autonomous vehicles are the savior of Atlanta’s traffic woes and will be ubiquitous in five years. Another industry innovator could make the convincing case that mass transit is the key to releasing the gridlock in this town. And yet another could show the stats on the cost savings with electric vehicles. Minds could be blown.  » RELATED: Georgia gov is revved up about self-driving shuttles But the x-factor in traffic innovation, gridlock solvency, pollution-fighting, and commuting efficiency is the prediction of human behavior. And while we have seen society take like ducks to water on certain things, these vehicular behavior progressions are costly. Buying a completely new car costs quite a bit more than a smartphone. Building a mile of heavy rail costs about a billion dollars; building roads is cheaper.  The opportunity cost of switching modes of travel is also a major factor in seeing some of these innovations take flight. Take mass transit: a rider on a MARTA train or bus is at the mercy of the scheduling and routes of that system. People (including this writer, who lives right next to the Chamblee MARTA station) often do not want to sacrifice time and autonomy just to gain the cost and potential time savings of riding the train. Sure, the train frees up time to read or check emails, things that a car driver cannot do. But if that train doesn’t drop the commuter right next to their destination, they have to add in time to walk or ride the bus. That makes mass transit less attractive.  Likewise, MARTA and the new umbrella ATL mass transit agency cannot expand too far beyond demand. In fact, outside of the line that will eventually run from Downtown Atlanta to Emory, MARTA does not have any concrete plans to expand rail. Gwinnett residents voted down MARTA rail expansion in March. A big part of that proposal and other, more firm plans is to have more bus routes, including bus rapid transit. B.R.T. is an express bus system that advocates call a “train on wheels.” That sounds more attractive than regular buses and much more cost effective and attainable than heavy rail, but will people use it? That is far from a guarantee.  Autonomous vehicle technology is mind blowing. The idea of computer-operated cars taking the wheel and driving more safely and efficiently than humans is closer to reality than some realize. Aside from the lack of human judgment aspect, however, there are other big obstacles to driverless cars making a dent in our traffic woes. The more advanced forms of this technology, say, Teslas, are cost prohibitive for many. But even if people started saving their money and buying these fancier cars, the vehicular turnover will not be significant enough anytime soon. For this technology to really make the impact that innovators project, there need to be virtually zero human drivers. Newer cars now are made better and last longer, so therefore people will take longer to upgrade.  But even if every driver needed to buy a new car, the fear of change will also stymie this progression to driverless vehicles. Just the idea of a computer taking the wheel is intimidating. And some people enjoy driving. These factors are glossed over oftentimes when idea people ideate. Human behavior: the x-factor.  Security or certainty is also a speed bump for the proliferation of electric vehicles. EVs, or at least hybrids, have been around for years. But one has to make quite a few concessions to switch over from the combustion engine. Ian Bogost, an Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies at Georgia Tech, wrote about this predicament recently in The Atlantic. He has been looking to upgrade from his rundown Jeep, but electric vehicles just don’t have the mileage range of a tank of gas. He also noted that a traditional 110V outlet takes about a day to charge the average electric car and that most homes would need a modification to allow the faster-charging 240V circuit. Since our society uses mostly gas-powered cars, gas stations are everywhere. Charging stations are in more and more places, but there are far less of those. A practical person may cringe at the idea of uncertainty or a more limited distance on a trip, even if choosing that EV is more cost-effective and eco-friendly.  Making bold statements about the future of commuting and how behind our society or just Atlanta by itself is easy. When I write about traffic, I often receive social media comments or emails about how lacking MARTA is. But even unlimited funds can’t assuage the unpredictability of human behavior. They also cannot pave over the fear of uncertainty. Undoubtedly, better public transportation, more driverless cars, and an increase in electric vehicles will help our commutes. But pushing these inert ideals out of the friend zone will take time, persistence, and patience.  » RELATED: Gridlock Guy: My ultimate pet peeve behind the wheel Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.

News

  • They take their football seriously in Philadelphia. Even scholarly types can go overboard when their beloved Eagles lose. >> Read more trending news  During the fourth quarter of Philadelphia's 27-24 televised loss to the Detroit Lions, the Fox network handling the broadcast showed an angry Eagles fan shouting as the telecast broke for a commercial. The angry fan was identified as Eric Furda, the University of Pennsylvania's dean of admissions since 2008, according to the The Philadelphia Inquirer. The clip quickly went viral, as it resonated with other angry Eagles fans. Furda admitted he was the culprit on Twitter, but only after he posted Sunday that he was 'not sure what the refs were looking at today.' Furda took a more apologetic tone Monday morning. 'After further review of the play I will take the 15 yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct,' Furda tweeted. 'But I will not lose my passion for Philadelphia and Penn sports!' The Eagles, who have lost two straight games after beating Washington in their season opener, travel to Green Bay to face the Packers at Lambeau Field on Thursday night.
  • A Michigan toddler died last week after authorities said her head became stuck in a car's power window in Detroit. >> Read more trending news  According to WXYZ-TV, Kierre Allen, 2, was inside the parked 2005 Mazda 3 with her father, who had fallen asleep, last Monday when the window somehow closed on her head, authorities said. The 21-year-old man awoke to find the child caught in the window, he told police. Kierre's uncle took the pair to a nearby hospital as the father tried to revive the girl, WJBK-TV reported. Doctors said she was dead when she arrived. Police arrested the girl's father, who had outstanding traffic warrants, authorities said. He has not been charged in connection with Kierre's death, the Detroit News reported.
  • A Cobb County school nurse was arrested Thursday after administrators noticed students’ medications were missing. Lindsey Waggoner, 38, is accused of stealing more than $1,500 of medication from Barber Middle School in Acworth, according to an arrest warrant obtained Monday by AJC.com. Cobb County school police allegedly found her in possession of 209 pills, including Adderall, generic forms of Ritalin and Focalin, and Evekeo. The drugs are commonly used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD. Principal Tia Amlett sent a letter home to parents alerting them to the investigation and arrest of a staff member, although the employee was not named.  “We have made contact with families who were directly affected by this situation and will continue to pursue policies that ensure such behavior does not go unnoticed,” she said. It was not immediately clear if Waggoner was fired following her arrest. As of Monday morning, she was still listed on Barber’s website. Amlett said she was being dealt with “according to district policy and state laws.” Waggoner, who is from Kennesaw, is facing a single felony charge of theft by taking. She was booked into the county jail Thursday afternoon and released a few hours later on a $15,000 bond.  In other news: 
  • The 178-year-old tour company Thomas Cook has shut down, potentially stranding hundreds of thousands of travelers who booked their trips with the company stranded across the globe. Thomas Cook was known for the package tour industry, The Associated Press reported. It had four airlines and 21,000 employees in 16 countries. All of the employees have been laid off and will lose their jobs. The ripple effect of Thomas Cook's collapse is expected to be felt across all of Europe and North Africa, the AP reported.  Officials at hotels are now worried about confirmed bookings that had been made for winter. About 600,000 people had been scheduled to travel with Thomas Cook through Sunday. Some subsidiaries were trying to get local connections to get people home, the AP reported.  The British government has stepped in to get 150,000 U.K. customers back to their homes starting Monday. The government has hired charter planes to get people home free of charge, and officials expect the process to fly everyone back to the U.K. will take about two weeks, the AP reported. >> Read more trending news  There are 50,000 people stranded in Greece, up to 30,000 in Spain's Canary Islands, 21,000 in Turkey and 15,000 in Cyprus all trying to find a way home, the AP reported. Thomas Cook officials blame competition from budget airlines and travelers booking their trips themselves though the internet as to why the company struggled financially and eventually shut down, the AP reported. The uncertainty also was brought on by Brexit and the drop in the pound that made it more expensive for British travelers to afford trips abroad, the AP reported. Despite the fact they no longer are being paid for their work, some Thomas Cook employees are still reporting for their shifts to help make sure those who are stranded can return home, Metro reported. One now-former employee said on Twitter that she will be at her post to help stranded customers. Employees at a different Thomas Cook location also posted a sign on their location saying they would open Monday morning to help customers, Metro reported. 
  • A second-year Georgia Tech student was confirmed dead Sunday after a swimming accident in the Chattahoochee River. James Strock was last seen Saturday afternoon swimming in the area of the West Palisades Trail at Paces Mill Park, according to school officials. Teams searched through dusk before turning to recovery efforts Sunday morning, dean of students John M. Stein said in a letter to the Georgia Tech community. A Georgia Tech spokeswoman confirmed Strock’s death Sunday evening. It is unknown if his body was recovered from the river. Strock was pursuing an undergraduate degree in computer engineering and was interested in robotics and quantum computing, according to his LinkedIn page. He was set to graduate in 2022. According to Tech officials, Strock was from Uganda and moved to the United States at age 16. He was an active member of the campus community, attended a campus ministry and could often be found in the recreational center. Strock completed a co-op program with DataPath, a communications and computer software company, in Lawrenceville over the summer. “On behalf of Georgia Tech, we offer our deepest condolences to James’ family and friends during this difficult time,” Stein said in the letter to students, faculty and staff, which was shared on Reddit. “I have been in constant contact with his family and will continue to be there to support them.” Grief counseling is available on campus from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through the week at the campus Counseling Center and in the student services building. Students may also call 404-894-2575 for support after hours. — Please return to AJC.com for updates. In other news: 
  • A federal judge will hear the arguments Monday for the first time from opponents of Georgia’s new anti-abortion law as they ask him to stop the measure from going into effect. Gov. Brian Kemp in May signed one of the nation’s strictest abortion laws, outlawing the procedure in most cases once a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity. It is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1. The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has asked U.S. District Judge Steve C. Jones to stop the law from going into effect while the case makes its way through the court system. The ACLU argued in a June complaint that the law violates a woman’s constitutional right of access to abortion until about 24 weeks of pregnancy, as established in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade. The ACLU has argued that “politicians should not be second-guessing women’s health care decisions.” In its response, the state said Georgia’s new anti-abortion law is “constitutional and justified” and asked Jones to dismiss the lawsuit challenging the measure. “Defendants deny all allegations in the complaint that killing a living unborn child constitutes ‘medical care’ or ‘health care,’” attorneys wrote. The state hired Virginia-based attorney to represent Gov. Brian Kemp, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey, members of the Georgia Composite Medical Board and its executive director. ACLU is representing SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, Feminist Women’s Health Center, Planned Parenthood Southeast and other abortion rights advocates and providers.