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Adventures in Detouring (Accident, Construction, etc.)

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I find unexpected traffic congestion - whether it be due to an accident, unexpected lane closure, or something else - to be a really interesting thing to study. I was thinking about this the other day when there was an accident on my commute and I ended up just driving around the area for a bit just to see what the impacts were on the area roadways. When an incident occurs on a main roadway, the "ripple effect" usually goes something like this:

1) incident occurs - traffic starts backing up
2) drivers start seeking alternate routes
3) further accidents may occur due to the "surprise" nature of the slowdown, rubbernecking etc.
4) alternate routes become congested
5) if sustained - alternates to the alternates also become congested
6) the incident clears up
7) traffic starts to clear up on the main roadway
8) traffic starts to clear up on the alternate routes

I also note Murphy's Law™: 7) will occur much faster and well before 8), such that if you approach the area of the incident at the wrong time and don't know whether 6) has occurred, you will be deceived into taking an alternate route and end up stuck in worse traffic on the alternate route even as traffic on the main roadway has started moving at speed again. I can think of a few times where this has happened which I will describe in more detail later - but for now I just wanted to put this topic out there for discussion and to share experiences of detouring around an unexpected traffic incident and the different ways in which drivers react and respond to these incidents.

1) on I-90 EB near Springfield, MA, July 2021 - traffic came to a complete stop near Exit 49, the MA 33 exit. I could tell from Google Maps that the incident was just before I-291, so I recommended we get off and try to get back on at I-291. Fuller Rd was a mess of traffic doing the same thing we were (as evidenced by the jughandle backing up under the Turnpike), so we kept going to MA 141. The line to turn left there was also extremely backed up despite a very long green arrow, but we finally got through after about 3 cycles. MA 141 moved along OK despite being in a long string of traffic. We then cut back across the Chicopee River to Fuller Rd and the on-ramp to I-291. Unfortunately, the entrance to I-291 was stop-sign controlled due to a lane closure/construction, so people were taking turns entering the lane and it took forever to get up to the Turnpike entrance. Finally, we got back on and traffic was heavy, but free-flowing with no sign of any incident.  Conclusion: we should have stayed on the Turnpike.

2) on US 30 EB near Wrightsville, PA, April 2022 - VMS'es outside York stated that US 30 was closed in Columbia due to an accident and to seek alternate routes. I could tell from Google Maps that traffic was backed up across the Susquehanna River bridge, so I planned to make sure we took the exit at Cool Springs Rd to PA 462 across the river. However I was pre-occupied and we missed the exit, coming to a complete stop just past said exit. We decided to U-turn here as a bunch of other traffic was doing the same thing. It took forever to find a gap in traffic the other way, which should have been a red flag that things were moving again. In any case, we made it back to PA 462 and after waiting in a long line to turn left, took the alternate through Wrightsville and across the river, looped around and missed the entrance to US 30 so we had to turn around and come back to the entrance from PA 441. By that time, US 30 was completely reopened with no signs of an incident. Traffic was extremely heavy from there to Lancaster so I knew we were at the tail end of the traffic clearing from the incident. Conclusion: we should have stayed on US 30.

3) on NY 104 near Webster, NY, May 2022 - heading EB on NY 104 traffic came to a complete stop just past Phillips Rd. Traffic was crawling at between 0-5 mph for a 1/2 mile or so. Eventually traffic started whizzing by on the shoulder to bail via Salt Rd, so I decided to do the same, found a gap, and rode on the shoulder right up until the Salt Rd exit. But then I noticed the line to turn right onto Salt was extremely backed up, while traffic was clearing up ahead on NY 104 and the cars next to me were starting to keep pace. I kept moving but slowed enough to find a gap, merged back in to the main lane, and moved along at 25-30 mph or so to Basket Rd where there was still an emergency vehicle but the incident had completely cleared. Conclusion: I made the right choice by staying on NY 104.

My biggest adventure in detouring came when trying to get from Elmira to Albany by way of Binghamton when there was gobs of flooding several years ago. I was able to finally get to I-81 to go south to Binghamton -- only to find I-88 closed in two spots with a detour marked for only one of the closures. Got delayed by at least two hours and when I finally got to Plattsburgh, it was getting dark and I missed most of the scenic drive over to Watertown because I couldn't see the scenery.

Max Rockatansky:
One my more infamous detour routes is using San Francisquito Canyon Road to get around problems on the Ridge Route/Grapevine corridor of I-5.  Most people swing all the way out to CA 14 and CA 58 because they are following what an app or GPS tells them.  Usually getting back to I-5 from San Francisquito Canyon Road requires using some pretty interesting roads either in the Mojave or on the San Andreas Fault like Los Angeles County Route N2. 

1.  A wreck on southbound I-55 in Springfield, IL, had traffic at a standstill.  This was before the smartphone days, in the early naughties.  I had a handheld CB radio back then (that took 28 AA batteries!), and I had it with us in the car.  We heard a couple of truckers recommending a route through town, so we decided to take their advice.  The problem is that so did half the other truckers, so we ended up stuck crawling through city traffic with a bunch of trucks.

2.  An overturned truck had the entire northbound roadway of I-35W in Fort Worth blocked.  The day before, our travel companion's pickup had a front wheel bearing break in the summer heat of the Mexican desert, and—after an adventure that involved hitchhikers, a mechanic who couldn't vocalize due to a tracheotomy, and a bit of good luck—we had therefore finally gotten in to the motel at 1 am.  I was in no mood for any more delays.  So we turned around (an exit was fortunately at hand), and I took an alternate route through Fort Worth.  On my alternate routes, some were under construction, some had wrecks of their own, and I was ready to punch a baby in the face or strangle a kitten by the time we finally got out of Fort Worth.  I then swore to never drive through Dallas–Fort Worth ever again—a vow I managed to keep for the next seven years.


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