Every day, day in and day out, an air force of helicopters and an army of cellular-phone users call in traffic reports to radio stations in major cities around the nation. The basic idea: You and I, Joe or Joan Q. Public, will receive timely warning about those nasty tie-ups and plan our commutes to avoid them.
It's a great idea. It would be even better if it actually worked that way.
The setup has two basic flaws. First, the helicopter is never flying along your route; any information the station is broadcasting right now is already at least a half-hour old. The tire-changer they are warning you about has already got the lug nuts back on and is on his or her merry, oil-burning way, while the 15-mile backup you have just blundered into with no hope of escape won't make it onto the air until about 23 minutes after you need to know about it.
The second problem is a dirty little secret: All those rival stations use the same one or two traffic-reporting services. It doesn't really matter which station you listen to; they will all be equally wrong.
Did you ever notice that most of those reports sound pretty much the same each day of the week?
Well, I did, and it occurred to me that I could perform a valuable service to our far-flung readership by printing the traffic reports here.
That way, you can clip this column, tape it to your sun visor, and you will be ready for whatever those mean highways throw your way.
(A warning, however: Do not leave this column affixed to your refrigerator. You will not be able to see it from the driver's seat and will have to call your spouse, who leaves for work later than you do, and ask him or her to please read the traffic report to you, thus running up unnecessary cellular-phone charges. And if you live alone, who ya gonna call?)
Here, then, courtesy of our continent-wide news resources, is your traffic report. If I don't mention your city, just take a pen and write a report in the margin at the bottom of this column.
Boston: The Tobin Bridge, both harbor tunnels, the Central Artery, and the Southeast Expressway are all backed up. The Mass Pike is flowing smoothly, which just goes to show that you should have bought in the western suburbs instead of investing in that shore property.
Washington, D.C.: The Beltway is clogged in both directions, especially on the Potomac River bridges. You could take the Metro, but good luck finding a parking place. The rail commuters from Baltimore will get to work faster than you will.
Los Angeles: The north-south overpasses are still damaged from the earthquake, except for one on the Santa Monica Freeway, and who wants to drive across an overpass that was finished two months ahead of time, anyway? It will take you 15 minutes to get out of the driveway and then another two hours to get to work or home. So what else is new?
San Francisco: The Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate, and major commuter routes are backed up because of a) earthquake; b) fog; c) fire; d) breakdowns; e) all of the above.
Detroit: The John Lodge, the Chrysler, and the Fisher Expressways are clogged.
Chicago: So are the Eisenhower, the Stevenson, and the Loop.
St. Louis: The Mississippi's flooded again. Take an oar.
Houston: The freeways are jammed. There are no secondary roads and no mass transit. It's always like this - why didn't you leave sooner?
Toronto: The QEW is bumper-to-bumper, the 401 is chock-a-block, the Don Valley is a parking lot, and the GO trains are running 15 minutes late.
New York: You must be kidding. Take the train.