December 2, 2021

Ohio Has E-ZPass!

I just returned Saturday from a seven day trip to Chicago, and was thrilled to discover that Ohio finally has E-ZPass! Starting October 1st, 2009, E-ZPass is now accepted at toll plazas on the Ohio Turnpike (Interstate 80 and 90), across Ohio — complete with discounted fares. So E-ZPass now takes you all the way from New Jersey to Illinois using electronic toll collection, since it’s also accepted in Indiana’s I-Zoom lanes and Illinois’ I-PASS system, or from Maine to Florida, without stopping to pay tolls. Go to E-ZPass for more information.

Eight Tips for Using Your Cell Phone on the Bus

Summary:

  1. Turn phone off or put it on vibrate.
  2. Make/receive essential calls only.
  3. Keep it short and speak softly.

A survey back in 2004 revealed the cell phone was both the most loved and most hated technological device of our time. I don’t think much has changed in the last five years, except many feel even more strongly now, one way or the other. It’s a love-hate relationship.

Cell phones on the bus can be a real advantage — students calling parents, for example, to notify them of a pick-up time on the way back from a trip, have made life easier for teachers and chaperones. On the other hand, ringing cell phones and loud conversations have become a thorn in the side to other passengers and even the motorcoach driver on bus trips.

Here are eight guidelines, expanded from the summary above, for using your cell phone on your next bus trip.

  1. Turn the ringer off when you board the motorcoach.

    No one wants to hear your phone ring. So if you can’t turn your phone off altogether, at least put it on vibrate. And if you’ve forgotten to do that and your phone starts ringing, be sure you know how to silence it instantly without answering it — usually pressing one of the side buttons will silence a ringing cell phone without hanging up on the caller.

  2. Answer the phone only if you recognize the caller and it’s an essential call.

    Let the call go to voicemail and check your messages later when you won’t disturb other passengers.

  3. Wait to make calls until you get to the next rest stop or arrive at your destination.

    Then you can walk away from the group and talk in privacy.

  4. If you must talk on the phone while you’re on the motorcoach, keep it short, speak softly, and avoid personal conversations.

    Cell phones have very sensitive microphones, so there’s no need to shout into your phone. Loud conversations, especially about personal issues, are probably the single most annoying use of cell phones on the bus — or just about anywhere else!

  5. Make sure the speakerphone is turned off.

    Worse than hearing your side of the conversation is hearing both sides! Be sure you know how your cell phone operates and do not use it as a speakerphone on the bus.

  6. Sending/receiving text messages is fine, as long as notification sounds are turned off or on vibrate.

    And as long as your seat mate isn’t offended that you’re ignoring them.

  7. When the driver announces an ETA (estimated time of arrival) on your return home, it’s okay to notify those waiting or expecting you by cell phone of your ETA.

    Just keep the above guidelines in mind — short, quiet conversations are still in order.

  8. Last, but not least, keep this basic rule of cell phone etiquette in mind, so when you “break the rules,” you do it respectfully of those around you: Keep a 10-foot (3 meter) distance between you and anyone else whenever you talk on your phone. And never talk in enclosed spaces.

    That basic guideline would rule out talking on the bus altogether, but using the previous guidelines I’ve suggested above allows respectful use of your phone when you’re on a bus trip. Respect for your fellow passengers is the key.

I’ve seen signs posted inside some motorcoaches that forbid ALL cell phone use for any reason from the first three rows of seats in the coach, to avoid disturbing the driver. I don’t ask for that on my bus, but keep in mind, drivers aren’t interested in your phone conversations, and they can indeed be a distraction to the driver. If the bus isn’t full, sometimes you can move to the rear of the bus to make or take an urgent phone call. But always wait until a stop if at all possible.

For more on cell phone etiquette, including other tips for cell phone usage when traveling, check out http://www.nophones.com/.

Eight Tips to Help You Navigate the Interstate Highway System

On the Interstate

On the Interstate

The Interstate Highway System of limited access highways is one of our nation’s great assets, relied on every day by motorcoach, truck and automobile drivers across the US. Although its roots go back to planning in the 1920s and 1930s, it wasn’t funded and building wasn’t started until 1956, when Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, championed by then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower. It has grown into a network of nearly 50,000 miles, making it the largest highway system in the world and the largest public works project in history. It is a subset of the National Highway System. Here are eight tips for finding your way around the Interstates, some well known, others less so.

Now, before you email or comment, I know there are numerous exceptions to most of what I’ve listed below! But in general, these tips will be very useful in finding your way around the Interstate Highway System. It’s the government, you know … and they don’t always follow their own rules.

  1. It’s a big grid.

    Not a perfect grid, thanks to our geography, but a grid none-the-less. The grid consists of one- and two-digit even numbered highways running east and west, lowest numbers in the south and highest numbers in the north; and one- and two-digit odd numbered highways running north and south, lowest numbers in the west and highest numbers in the east.

  2. The grid is supplemented with loops, beltways, and spurs.

    Interstate loops, beltways, and spurs

    Interstate loops, beltways, and spurs

    Loops and beltways bypass or circle major metropolitan areas, often easing your drive around highly trafficked areas. They are numbered with three-digit numbers, the first number being an even number, and the last two reflecting the primary Interstate to which they connect at two different locations.

    Spurs, likewise, are also numbered with three digit numbers, the last two of which reflect the primary Interstate from which it’s a spur, and the first digit being an odd number.

    There are no duplicate three-digit Interstate numbers within one state, but the numbers are duplicated from state to state.

    Interstate Mile Marker

    Interstate Mile Marker

  3. Mile markers are your compass.

    The Interstates are indexed with small green or blue signs marking each mile of the highway — in most cases, marking each tenth of a mile. It’s a great way to know exactly where you are on the highway. Miles are numbered from the west to the east, and from the south to the north, always restarting from 0 at the border of each state. So … if you’re on I-80 (an even number so you know it’s an east-west route) and the mile markers are increasing, you know you’re going east! If you’re on I-95 and the mile markers are decreasing, you’re going south.

    If you’re traveling south or west, you know exactly how many miles it is to the state border (or the end of the Interstate, if it doesn’t reach the border). Traveling north or east, however, you need to know how long that section of the Interstate is to know how far it is to the border.

  4. In most states, exits are numbered by the mile marker.

    A few states still number Interstate exits in numerical order. But most states have followed newer federal guidelines and renumbered their exits according to the nearest mile marker, making exit numbers infinitely more useful. If you’re headed to exit 40, for instance, and you’re at mile marker 20, you know you have 20 miles to go to your exit. If the exits are numbered in consecutive order, you have no clue how far it is to the next exit based on the mile markers.

  5. Left exit or right exit? The clue is on the sign.

    The exit number flush left to indicate a left exit, flush right to indicate a right exit.

    The exit number flush left to indicate a left exit, flush right to indicate a right exit.

    Interstate exit signs usually mark the exits at one and two miles in advance. The exit number is at the top of the sign on a separate board. If that exit number board is flush with the left of the larger sign, it’s a left exit. If the exit number board is flush with the right side of the sign, it’s a right exit! See the photo at the right for an example of each.

    Left exits are much less common than right exits, and are often marked in a yellow section at the bottom of exit signs, also.

    There are a few states who have opted not to update their exit signs to this national standard — Connecticut, for example. They have exit numbers centered at the top of the sign, giving no clue to whether it’s a right or left exit. You’ll occasionally see other exceptions, too, even in states that largely follow the federal guidelines. But for the most part, you’ll find this tip very useful.

  6. The Interstate Highway number grid is a flip-flop of the US Highway numbering system.

    The US Highway system, around long before the Interstates, is also laid out in a nationwide grid. But it’s flip-flopped, north-south and east-west from the Interstate numbering scheme. Odd numbered highways still run north and south, but the lower numbers are in the east, higher numbers in the west; even numbered highways run east and west, with lower numbers in the north, higher numbers in the south.

    There are exceptions to both numbering grid systems, although more exceptions in the US Highway system.

    Because these numbering grids are flip-flopped, you’ll find no I-50 or I-60 route numbers; chances are they’d be in the same states with US Highways of the same route number, and would be very confusing for drivers.

  7. Interstate Design Standards: Roadway widths, bridge clearances and weight limits

    I-95 Shield

    I-95 Shield

    Interstate design standards include a minimum of four 12-foot wide travel lanes, a minimum shoulder width of 10 feet, full control of access, and design speeds of 50 to 70 miles per hour (depending on the type of terrain).

    Bridge clearances are specified to be at least 16 feet, including shoulder clearances. Although the maximum height of trucks in the US is 13′ 6″, the design standards were written to allow movement of military equipment, part of the missile defense system, now obsolete. Bridge weight limits accommodate at least maximum legal loads of 80,000 lb. (40 tons); in some states the limits are significantly higher — Michigan, for instance, with their super-heavy trucks.

    HOWEVER — it’s important to note that there are many exceptions to these numbers! While new construction meets these design standards nearly 100% of the time, many older Interstates do not, especially roads such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike that were not originally constructed as Interstates but became part of the Interstate system later. Motorcoaches should not generally have a problem on any of the Interstates, but trucks do have to be careful and watch for an occasional low clearance or underweight bridge limit even on the Interstates. Exceptions should be well marked in advance of the problem. Most problems will be limited to oversize loads, not a problem for tour buses.

  8. Interstate Highway Trivia

    The longest Interstate:
    I-90, 3,020.54 miles, from Seattle, Washington, to Boston, Massachusetts

    The shortest Interstate:
    I-97, 17.62 miles, Annapolis to Baltimore, Maryland

    The highest point on the Interstate system:
    I-70, in the Eisenhower Tunnel at the Continental Divide in the Colorado Rocky Mountains (11,158 ft.)

    The lowest point on the Interstate system:
    I-95, in the Fort McHenry Tunnel under the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, Maryland (107 ft. below sea level)

    Highest speed limit:
    80 mph (130 km/h): I-10 and I-20 in rural western Texas and I-15 in rural central Utah

    Lowest speed limit:
    40 mph (64 km/h): I-490 through Rochester, New York; I-68 through Cumberland, MD; and I-394 east of I-94 in Minneapolis, Minnesota

For references and more information, visit these sites:

Eight Ways to Annoy a Motorcoach Driver

I’m smiling as I write this, but these are annoying issues bus drivers face nearly every day. Have you ever been guilty of one of these? Here are eight ways to annoy a motorcoach driver:

As a motorcoach passenger ….

  • Have the ringer turned up on your cell phone, and take a call while the driver is making announcements to passengers. Be sure to speak loudly so your caller can hear you over the bus driver.
  • Be late returning to the bus, holding up the entire group. This is especially effective in places like New York City, where the driver can’t sit and wait for you but must drive around several blocks, hoping you’ll be there when he/she returns.
  • At the first stop on an overnight trip, tell the driver you forgot something in your suitcase, now buried in the luggage bays, that you must have right away.
  • Tell the driver at the end of the trip what a great job he/she did, and you can’t wait to ride with him/her again … but don’t give him/her a gratuity. (He/she does this just for fun.)

As an automobile driver on the road ….

  • Be a “lane camper”; drive slowly in the center lane of a three lane highway, ignorant of the fact that, on many highways throughout the US (northeastern US especially), buses and trucks are prohibited from using the far left lane, and you’re blocking them by not moving out of the center lane.
  • At a red traffic light, completely ignore that thick, heavy, white “stop” line — stop anywhere you like beyond the line, don’t worry about larger trucks and buses trying to make the turn from the cross street.
  • On the Interstate, vary your speed as much as you feel like. Pass the bus and then slow up, making the bus pass you again. Using cruise control is “dangerous,” anyway.
  • Park your car in bus parking areas (nice, roomy spaces!), or park illegally on a city street corner, making it nearly impossible for large vehicles (trucks and buses) to make the turn.

NJ State Police Ticketing Frenzy

Have you seen this email, or one similar?

New Jersey State Police Ticketing information

Starting Wednesday August 12th the New Jersey State Police launched a 30 day speeding ticket campaign. The state estimates that 9 million dollars will be generated from the speeding tickets issued during this campaign. There will be at least 50 New Jersey State Troopers on duty at all times patrolling the 9 major routes in the state (see the list below). They can justify issuing a ticket to anyone traveling 5 miles per hour above the posted speed limit. Every state trooper is supposed to issue between 3 and 6 tickets per hour.

The state has issued 30 new un-marked Crown Victoria’s and all part-time officers will be working full time during this campaign. The price of a violation to show driver’s license, registration and insurance card at the time you are stopped increased from $44 to $173 and the fine for not having these documents is now $519. The fine for using a hand-held cell phone while driving is $180.

The routes are as follows:
1-295 North and South
1-95 New Jersey Turnpike North and South
1-80 East and West
1-287 North and South
1-78 East and West
1-195 East and West
1-280 East and West
Route 130 North and South
Garden State Parkway North and South

Well, don’t let it worry you too much; there is no truth to the email, according to Snopes.com. The email first appeared in 2005, and versions of it have appeared over the last few years adapted to a number of states, including Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas, California, and others, even Hawaii.

For more info, check this link on Snopes.com:
http://www.snopes.com/politics/traffic/speeding.asp

Lest anyone misunderstand, I’m not advocating speeding under any circumstances. With most motorcoach governors being set at around 70 MPH or lower these days, highway speeding is rare anyway. But false emails shouldn’t be part of traffic enforcement, whatever their source.

The Perfect Hotel Room

Four Points by Sheraton, Charlesbourg, Quebec -- a very bus-friendly hotel. 

Four Points by Sheraton, Charlesbourg, Quebec -- a very bus-friendly hotel.

I’ve been on the road a lot this summer, as far south as Mississippi, and north to Quebec City, Quebec, Canada. And lots of places in between. As I sometimes tell my passengers, I call home every day, so my wife at least recognizes my voice when I come home!

When you’re on the road that much, the right hotel room can mean the difference between a great trip and a terrible trip. It’s often the little things that make the difference. But it never ceases to amaze me how many hotels screw up the little things!

The basics: a clean, quiet room is a given. But many hotels fall down right there — the room isn’t clean, or not as clean as it should be. Good help is hard to find, I know; but in most cases I’ve seen, management is the issue. People do what’s expected of them and only so far as they’re held accountable. Often a dirty room means someone at a higher level isn’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing. (Does that apply to dirty buses, too?!)

A comfortable bed is also a given, you would think. I’m a tall guy — 6’5″ — and used to a king size bed at home, which is my ideal on the road, too. A queen size bed is still comfortable; but some hotels, mostly older ones, still have full size beds in their standard room. In those, my feet stick out the end, and I definitely don’t sleep as well. Some hotels have newer style “pillow-top” mattresses — wow, some are so comfortable I’m in no hurry to go home! Others have hard, “spring-loaded” mattresses; when you sit down you bounce right back up again — not good.

Other important factors include working temperature control in the room, preferably without having to hear a very noisy air conditioner or heater. A bathroom big enough to turn around in, with plenty of fluffy white towels. A wall mirror in the room in addition to the bathroom. A TV with a working remote. An elevator if you’re not on the first floor. A portico high enough to get the bus underneath for loading/unloading luggage on a rainy day. And, of course, bus parking — if you can’t safely park your motorcoach at or very near the hotel, all of this is a moot point.

Some hotel chains have introduced amenities over the years that have now become must-haves for the regular traveler. In the bathroom, a curved shower rod (thanks, Hampton Inn), and a great shower head (thanks, Holiday Inn). A “free” continental breakfast with at least one or two hot items (saves a lot of time and money when you’re on the road). Free Internet access. All of these used to be niceties, but I don’t want to stay in a room without them anymore.

If you’re away more than one night, especially on a trip where you end up killing a lot of time in a hotel room, a microwave and refrigerator is really important, too — partly for convenience, but especially for cost savings. On a multiple day trip I’ll often make a stop at a supermarket the first day and pick up a few things I can lunch on in the room.

Ironically, the more expensive hotels don’t include many of these things, or charge extra for them. Breakfast and Internet access, for instance, are often extra charges. Those hotels are more for vacationers and corporate travelers. Fortunately, for working travelers like motorcoach drivers, there are several chains who do a great job at meeting our needs. But the list is pretty short for those who do it well and do it consistently. There are exceptions, but overall, here are my favorites; the first three are way, way ahead of the pack:

  1. Drury Inn
    Too bad this chain is only in the midwest. “The extras aren’t extra” and they have no equal in my limited experience with them. It’s probably not a coincidence that they aren’t franchises — all are family owned.
  2. Hampton Inn
    Long my number one choice until my experience with Drury Inns this summer. They just get it right, over and over, across the chain. Must be someone following up somewhere!
  3. Holiday Inn Express, Holiday Inn Select
    These are the newer of the Holiday Inns, and, like Hampton Inn, get it right over and over again.
  4. The rest of the list is a distant fourth place or worse. They tend to be inconsistent — I’ve stayed in some excellent ones, and had to leave an occasional one, it was so bad. But because of the cost and/or location, they’re often in the running:

  5. Comfort Inn
    Many (most?) of these are two floors, no elevator. Many are older and run down. But a few are also very nice. I’ve had both good and bad experiences with these.
  6. Red Roof Inn
    Low price, pet friendly (which means if there’s a local dog show, you’re going to have lots of animals around!). Inconsistent quality.
  7. Days Inn
    Many of these are older and not in good shape, but there are some good ones, too.
  8. Ramada Inn
    I’ve only ever stayed in one Ramada I was comfortable in (Ligonier, PA). But I’m sure there must be a few other good ones somewhere.

Sheraton isn’t on my list above, because they’re often among the more expensive hotels that charge extra for things like breakfast and Internet access. But I recently had a good experience with a Sheraton near Quebec City in Canada, which is where the above photo was taken. Note the bus parking — right by the front door! I was the only bus there, so no competition for that spot; but other buses wouldn’t have had too far to go, since this was a fairly new hotel with very large parking lots.

A driver friend of mine has a real simple hotel rule: if there’s no front door giving access to all the rooms, it’s the wrong hotel. An oversimplification, perhaps, but you know what — he’s often right!

That’s my list, based on my personal experience. How does it compare to your experience? Feel free to add your comments below.

The Forum Is Back!

The Forum (also commonly known as a Bulletin Board) was a featured part of EightWheels.com in past years. It allowed everyone here to share, easily and in an organized fashion. But over the last couple of years, it was overrun by spammers registering to use the board. Even though I was able to prevent them from posting, I couldn’t find a way to easily prevent them from signing up, and in a short period of time I had thousands of registrations to sort through to try and find the legitimate sign-ups. So I ended up closing the forum about a year ago.

With the new site design a couple of months ago, I started once again looking for more spam-proof forum software that would integrate with the new design, and I found it! In fact, as you can see, it’s better integrated with the site than the previous forum ever was. It looks good, and so far it’s also working great. The jury is still out on whether spammers will be kept away, but so far none have successfully registered, while several individual users have signed up without problems.

Right now there are two separate sections: one for drivers, and one for passengers. Each has several sub-sections. More will be added in the future as I see the need.

You must register to use the forum. After clicking on Forum in the navigation bar at the top of any page, just click the Register button on one of the Forum pages, and follow the directions there to sign up. Then feel free to interact with some of the topics already started, in the most appropriate section, or click the new topic button and start a new topic of your own. It’s easy and fun!

Also new this week on EightWheels.com are polls! They may show up at various spots around the site in the future, on individual posts or in one of the sidebars. Right now there is a post in the right sidebar, just for motorcoach drivers, on GPS use. If you’re a driver, take a second to vote.

New Bus Lane at Blackpool Border Crossing

I just returned yesterday from a five-day tour of Montreal and Quebec City, Canada, and was thrilled to discover there is a new bus lane for US customs! It’s been a year since I used the Blackpool border crossing, where Canadian Route 15 connects to I-87 in New York (known to Canadian locals as the Lacolle border crossing and to New York locals as the Champlain border crossing), so I’m not sure how long the new bus lane has been there, but it wasn’t there last August when I crossed there. The US side has been undergoing construction for the last couple of years, and the pattern for buses was often confusing, not well marked, and different every time you came through, it seemed. But now you simply keep to the far right of the car lanes, and you’ll see the bus lane clearly defined. You no longer follow the commercial/truck lanes as previously. It works almost exactly like the bus lane on the Canadian side going north.

Even though there was just one bus ahead of me, which was cleared ten minutes after we were in line, we waited almost 25 minutes until a customs officer came aboard. With only 29 passengers and all US citizens, passports in hand, it was a fairly quick ten minute inspection from that point (including almost five minutes for them to check my passport and the bus registration).

I’ve only done two border crossings since the new passport requirements took effect June 1, 2009 — one at Niagara Falls in June and this one yesterday at Blackpool — but so far it seems that the new passport requirement is making for easier, more efficient crossings, at least once the customs officers make it to your bus. Going north this past Monday, two Canadian officers came aboard, one starting from the back of the coach and one from the front. They also had me open the luggage bays and storage doors on the coach, a rarity on the Canadian side. But like I tell my passengers, no two border crossings are the same! You never know exactly what to expect. Just be prepared.

Site and Photo Gallery Updates

I’ve been working way too much recently, but you have to make hay while the sun shines, right? LOL … In between trips, I’ve made a few updates to the site and added a couple of photo galleries. The FAQ is back! Not many changes from the previous version a while back, but it’s been updated some. Also in the Links menu is a new page for State DOT Sites for each state in the USA. Plus I’ve added a few more links on the Parking & More links page.

Two new photo galleries have also been added — photos from two different, recent visits to the Arlington National Cemetery, and a few photos from a trip to FDR’s home in Hyde Park, NY. Check them out when you have a chance.
[note]Arlington National Cemetery
FDR Home[/note]

The Case of the Disappearing Rest Stops

Virginia Rest Area, Mile 54 South, I-81, one of the rest areas to be closed July 21, 2009.

Virginia Rest Area, Mile 54 South, I-81, one of the rest areas to be closed July 21, 2009.


With the downturn in the economy, states across the country are experiencing budget crises, and looking for ways to cut expenses anywhere they can. And many are looking for quick fixes — short term savings regardless of the long term consequences. One of those shortsighted “fixes” affects all of us who travel, drivers and passengers: the closing of state operated rest stops.

States are discovering they can save millions of dollars, in some cases, by closing interstate rest areas that produce little or no direct income. Virginia, for example, is closing 18 interstate rest areas next week (July 21, 2009), and one of their welcome centers on I-66 in September, for a reported savings of almost $9 million annually. Maine is closing two rest areas on I-95 to save about $700,000. Vermont has already temporarily closed four rest areas, and is considering permanently closing six rest areas, for a savings of $1 million annually. Louisiana has closed 24 of its 34 rest areas since 2000, four of them last year. Colorado, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Arizona and others are also considering closing highway rest areas.

One of Virginia's rest areas on I-81, closed 7/21/09 for budgetary reasons.

One of Virginia's rest areas on I-81, closed 7/21/09 for budgetary reasons.

While states may be saving a few dollars short term, it comes at the expense of both the traveling public and the local economy. The loss of 24/7 toilets at rest stops is just the most obvious loss. Now travelers will need to exit the highway to find facilities, relying on businesses — at their expense — to provide facilities. Some of those businesses will benefit from the increased traffic, but many aren’t prepared and can’t handle the increase. Most of them are not open 24/7, so travel times will be affected. Very few of them can handle animals, so travel with pets will be much more difficult, too. My guess is that we’re going to see a lot more cars parked alongside the road, both people and pets relieving themselves along the highway, the most dangerous place they could possibly be.

And what about buses? Fifty passengers descending on McDonald’s to use the restrooms may be slow but workable, at least occasionally … but what about multiple buses? Few small businesses can handle the parking needs of a motorcoach, let alone a sudden crowd of 50 or more people arriving at the same time. Trucks will have similar issues when it comes to parking needs. Rest stops have provided them a safe, off-the-road parking spot to catch a nap or just take a safety break. With more trucks parked on the shoulders of the highway, everyone’s safety is jeopardized. Studies have shown that the greater the distance between rest stops, the higher the truck accident rate.

Many small attractions in communities across the country have not been able to afford advertising other than the brochure racks in rest stops. Even larger attractions benefit significantly from the advertising opportunities at rest areas. Some will experience significantly fewer visitors from the loss of exposure and may ultimately close.

So short term, yes, states save a few dollars by closing rest areas. But it seems very shortsighted to me, with a very high potential cost down the road, from both an economic and safety standpoint. What do you think? Add your comments below.

UPDATE 7-28-09 — Here’s a link to a complete list of Virginia’s rest areas (from Virginia DOT) showing both open and closed rest areas that may be helpful:

http://virginiadot.org/travel/map-rest-area.asp