Cumberland Times-News

March 22, 2014

You zig to the left and then zig to the right

Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— I try to tell people the newspaper contains a wealth of useful — and sometimes vital — information, but few of them listen to me.

A co-worker friend and I recently got some needed information from the Times-News in the form of an answer to a question we had asked each other.

We travel separately to work each morning via what she calls the Stupid-About and return home each afternoon via what I call the Question Mark-About near the on-ramp from U.S. Route 220 to Interstate 68 just south of Cumberland. They are sections of highway.

The Question Mark-About is shaped like a question mark. The Stupid-About is just stupid.

What, she and I asked each other, are those cars and trucks doing parked just about every day at the place where the Stupid-About and the Question Mark-About merge at what, because of its convoluted nature, almost seems like a junction of two different space-time continuums when you are in the middle of it?

It was obvious they weren’t police patrol cars. Even legendary Formula One race driver Jackie Stewart couldn’t go through the Question Mark-About fast enough to break the speed limit.

I wondered briefly if they were advance scouts for personal liability lawyers who were waiting for accidents to happen. Probably not.

Besides, as my co-worker said, the only two accidents that have happened there so far have — appropriately enough — involved State Highway Administration vehicles.

The answer to our question appeared in the caption of a photo on the Region Page of our March 13 edition.

I read only the first part of it before showing it to my friend.

“Did you read ALL of it?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

What I had read stated that trucks from the State Highway Administration’s Travel Forecasting Office of Baltimore were conducting traffic counts at what the SHA calls “the partial roundabout.”

The part I hadn’t read stunned me with its implications.

It stated, “SHA plans traffic counts at other locations along U.S. 220 and Interstate 68 for planners and engineers to use as part of modeling for future projects.”

Does that mean even more Stupid-Abouts could be in store for Marylanders?

England has gained notoriety from mysterious, intricately designed crop circles that suddenly spring up overnight. Maryland may become known for bewilderingly complex pavement circles that defy all rational explanation.

I hope that doesn’t happen. I mean, this is Maryland — not New Jersey.

Surely, the Not-So-Free State isn’t run by people who would deliberately tie up our traffic with Stupid-Abouts, Question Mark-Abouts and as-yet unimaginable Whatinthehellisthisdamnthing-Abouts the way New Jersey officials snarled bridge traffic in Fort Lee because Gov. Chris Christie supposedly had a vendetta against its mayor.

One of the talking heads on a TV news show said he initially found that hard to swallow because he couldn’t imagine that the people who ran New Jersey could be that petty or that stupid. Subsequent events, he said, proved him wrong on both counts.

Maryland’s government is capable of amazing things — like spending $3.77 million to construct a piece of roadwork, then redoing half of it because people hated it, while changing virtually nothing from the original design.

Still, I don’t think Maryland’s leadership would deliberately go out of its way to bollix up Cumberland’s traffic. It’s not likely we’ve done anything to irritate them, but even if we did, they don’t pay enough attention to us to have noticed — or even care, if they did.

I drive through the Stupid-About coming to work and take the Question Mark-About on the way home.

What nobody I’ve talked to understands is why their design forces you to weave your way through them.

Each time I enter the Question Mark-About, I say, “Zig to the left! Zig to the right! Stand up! Sit down! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

One time, I followed a tractor-trailer through its almost 90-degree turn and was actually rooting for the driver because I thought he was going to make it all the way without his hindmost set of tires traveling across the hernia-shaped peninsula that’s the main feature of this serpentine madness.

Alas, he didn’t quite manage it. Judging from the tire marks, most rig drivers probably just run over it and don’t even try to miss it.

Traffic mostly goes through the southbound Question Mark-About at a reasonable speed.

On the other hand, traffic navigating the northbound Stupid-About usually slows down and sometimes gets backed up because drivers must yield to anyone turning left out of the Question Mark-About or cutting straight through it upon leaving the I-68 off-ramp.

They see other cars coming and don’t know whether to speed up, slow down or just get out of the way. (My grandfather had a colorful expression for times like this that referred to someone who didn’t know whether to go potty or see why his watch had stopped running.)

I harbor a faint hope that the traffic observers saw what has been wrought at our Question Mark- and Stupid-Abouts and will report to their bosses that they have created a concrete version of the Edsel — a car that Ford Motor Company made for only three years because few people wanted it.

Like our -Abouts, some folks thought the Edsel was a good-looking piece of work, but others (because of its grill design) said it looked like a Mercury sucking a lemon. (Ironically, Edsels still in good condition are worth lots of money today.)

I also learned from the photo caption that the SHA has a Travel Forecasting Office.

If worst comes to worst, and more of these traffic-confounding nuisances are built elsewhere in Maryland, maybe this outfit can take a page from The Weather Channel and place signs in the appropriate places that say this:

The State Highway Administration’s Travel Forecasting Office of Baltimore has issued a Stupid-About Warning for our area.