Last Friday I rode for a couple hours with a Safe Clear wrecker driver during the evening rush hour. I have always intuitively felt that an aggressive incident response program made sense. After seeing it in action, I am even more convinced.
During the roughly two hours I rode with the Safe Clear wrecker, we assisted three individuals whose cars were disabled. Two of the cars were towed to a nearby location; and the third had a flat tire which my wrecker driver assisted the motorist in changing.
In all three cases, each driver of the disabled vehicle told me that we had arrived within five minutes of them pulling over. In the case of the two tows, they were off the roadway within 10 minutes. It took about 15 minutes to help change the tire. Clearly, it would have taken the motorist much longer working alone. Also, by using the boom of the wrecker truck to lift the vehicle instead of a somewhat rickety jack, the car was quickly moved to a safer distance off the roadway. As you might imagine, each of the drivers of the disabled vehicles was extremely appreciative.
The service with which I was riding is responsible for several segments of freeway near downtown. The company had several wreckers "orbiting" along these segments to insure a quick response.
I understand that the City is having some difficulty documenting a congestion reduction effect from the Safe Clear program. This is largely because the congestion on a particular roadway is the result of a large number of variables, and attempting to isolate the effect of one specific factor is very difficult. I generally favor being able to measure the benefit derived from any public expenditure, however, in this case common sense and these anecdotal observations are good enough for me.
There are several things that could be done to improve the program, such as:
1. The program should be expanded to a single county-wide system. Currently, the Harris County Sheriff's Office and the Metro operate separate motor assistance programs (commonly referred to as MAP) in addition to Safe Clear. The MAP programs are not wreckers and only offer limited assistance, such as changing flats and providing fuel. In fact, during my Safe Clear ride. we happened on a Sheriff's MAP truck helping a driver who had run out of gas near downtown. The overlap of these three programs appears to be wasteful and motorists need to know that they will be assisted anywhere in the county.
2. The paperwork needs to be reduced. In the case of the two tows, it took my driver longer to get the authorization from Transtar and complete the paperwork than it did to actually make the tows. It seems that some wireless technology could be applied to this problem. If Fed Ex can do it for an overnight package, we should be able to do it for a tow.
3. We need better public awareness. In each of the three cases I witnessed, the disabled motorists were not aware that the wrecker was provided by the City or that the service was free. Also, having all of the Safe Clear trucks more clearly marked and some kind of recognizable uniform of the drivers would be helpful.
The Texas Transportation Institute (associated with Texas A&M University) estimates that 50% of all traffic congestion is caused by a disabled vehicle or an accident. With traffic congestion getting worse by the day, we must employ every tool available that will make a difference. There is no single "silver bullet" answer. However, Safe Clear and the MAP programs were definitely a step in the right direction. A unified, aggressive, county-wide incident response program is the next logical step and would a valuable tool in fighting our every-growing traffic congestion.
(Note: A lawsuit is still pending by certain wrecker companies regarding the manner in which the territories were awarded when the Safe Clear program was implemented. I have not investigated the issues in that suit and have no opinion as to the merits of the suit. My comments are only intended to address the program's actual operations.)