WSDOT incident teams keep drivers out of highway gridlock

By Derek Tsang

Are you an average driver? If so, you spend two weeks out of the year cooped up in your car, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation. For those who prefer not to whittle away the hours jamming to NPR on the 520 bridge, its safe to say that they'd like to see that number go down.

That's one of the WSDOT's ceaseless battles. There were upwards of 31 million vehicle miles traveled on Washington state roadways in 2009, and nine million of those in King County. A fair portion of those many miles are spent at a less than ideal pace, oftentimes because of human error -- crashes, disabled vehicles, stranded drivers on the side of the road. Incidence Response Trucks (IRTs) are responsible for removing those obstructions the moment they pop up. Their motto is simple: "Clearing Roads, Helping Drivers."

IRTs and their drivers get anything and everything out of the way. They move fully loaded semi-trucks, pump out fuel, set up traffic control, and even give basic first aid if necessary. They're armed to the teeth with every sort of gear to make sure motorists can get moving. They upgrade incident-induced traffic to plain old regular traffic.

Pat Nolan, an IRT driver for the past eight and a half years, expected a full day on a rainy Tuesday.

"The first rain after a long dry spell, you're going to have all kind of fender-benders," said Nolan.

Defying expectations, Nolan encountered nothing more than a man with a drained car battery – twice. It's a safe bet that the motorist was doubly thankful, though, as were the other drivers who had been stuck in traffic from the incident.

For most of their day, IRTs roam the highways in their Ford 350s and 450s. Out of the 15-19 trucks on the roads in the Northwest Area, 11 typically cover Seattle and the Eastside. They're looking for literally anything on the road that might impede traffic, and they're waiting for WSDOT radio dispatchers to alert them to incidents.

"We encounter and respond," said Nolan, like all IRT drivers a trained maintenance technician. He may drive upwards of 50,000 miles in a given year, and more than 150 miles in a given day.

IRTs are prepared to handle both the ordinary and the extraordinary. They carry gear to change tires, to move trucks, chains, signs, cones, extra water, gas, and even supplies for spills. Despite the danger of the job, the point of every single encounter is identical – get traffic moving.

"Its all pretty much the same," said Nolan. "If there's something on the roadway, we clear it to the shoulder. If we can't, we set up traffic control."

IRTs responded to 31,060 calls through 2010 up to Dec. 21, and 17,795 of those involved disabled vehicles. By comparison, only 43 involved fatality collisions, 920 involved injury collisions, and 126 involved fires.

When there is a life-threatening incident, IRTs usually only hold the fort for fire department EMTs. And its protocol to call and ask for counsel in the case of something out of the ordinary, Nolan said.

"It's feast or famine," Nolan said. "You might not have a flat tire for weeks, and then one day you have three or four. It's the same thing with changing gas ... you just never know."

For Nolan, it's a fulfilling job because it involves "helping people," regardless of whether its a "simple solution" or a more complex one. That doesn't mean its entirely a safe occupation, though. Recently, an IRT operator in the Bellingham area was struck by a motorist while responding to an incident, said WSDOT employee Kris Olsen. "Anytime anyone is on the freeway, they're in danger," Nolan said.

When asked to give drivers advice, Nolan reinforced the basics.

"Check your spare tires, because nine out of 10 are underinflated. Your car works just as well on the top half of the gas tank as it does on the bottom half, so make sure you have enough gas."

Derek Tsang is an intern at the Bellevue Reporter. He attends Interlake High School.

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