GMR Traffic Series: What’s causing those ‘phantom’ backups?

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Traffic: It’s one of our top concerns each and every morning on Good Morning Richmond.

If you are like most people, you just expect it and white knuckle it all the way into work. What if we told you the way that you and others are driving, could be a big part of why there are so many backups?


“A lot of side streets and main streets — there’ s a lot of work going on,” said driver William Chad Prentiss McLain III.

Ask just about any driver, including those who spend a lot of time on the road in an RV, and you mostly get the same answer.

“Construction — lots of construction,” said driver Mike Ellerbrock.

Sure — construction can cause backups. The morning and afternoon commute means many drivers are on the road at the same time — all fighting for the same piece of pavement.


But, could it be the way many people are driving these days that’s causing these backups to be even worse?  Especially those “phantom” backups or “traffic snakes” where drivers wait and wait, only to find out there’s nothing up the road causing the backup.

We first came across this story on the website Gizmodo.

We then turned to State Police Sgt. Steve Vick for a ride along to show us what’s happening on the roads of Richmond.

“We do see a lot of aggressive driving,” Sgt. Vick said.


Within minutes of rolling out of the station, we were bumper to bumper on Powhite Parkway in rush hour traffic.

“The traffic is kind of stop and go,” Sgt. Vick said. “People get agitated — they cut over and that’s where we get aggressive driving”.

People are more distracted than ever by their cell phones, or like one woman we saw, who was putting on her makeup behind the wheel. Those distractions can lead to drivers slamming on their brakes in rush hour.

“You are up to 30 to 40 miles per hour, then down to zero like that,” Sgt. Vick added.


On I-95, we found drivers tailgating, cutting across lanes at the last minute, and driving well over the speed limit in stop and go traffic.

It didn’t take long to find one of the “phantom” traffic jams at the Boulevard exit.

“It’s very heavy traffic. Some people may be running late, they speed up, come across at the very last minute and hit their brakes to exit and get off at last second,” Vick said. “That stops traffic in every lane.”


So, how do you avoid being part of the problem? It goes back to what you learned in Drivers Education: slow and steady wins the race.  Leave those two car lengths or two seconds worth of distance between you and the car in front of you.

Interestingly enough, self-driving cars could be the answer to fixing these phantom backups. They use computers and software to keep the same distance from vehicles in front and in back.

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