Gridlock Guy: Atlanta’s tricky road names and the wisdom and tenacity of Captain Herb

Hundreds are gathering today to celebrate the life of our dear friend and colleague “Captain” Herb Emory who died last weekend of a massive heart attack.
Hundreds are gathering today to celebrate the life of our dear friend and colleague “Captain” Herb Emory who died last weekend of a massive heart attack.

Saturday, April the 12th of 2014 is a day those close to Captain Herb Emory will never forget. The legendary Atlanta traffic reporter, NASCAR show host, and multi-pronged philanthropist died of a heart attack while directing traffic around and helping victims out of a crash in front of his Douglasville home. The memory of the grim phone calls and the hours of sitting in a kitchen of sadness still prime my tear ducts. But the outpouring of good memories and charity in the wake of that tremendous loss put wind in the sails of the wary. And hearing the sound of the Captain’s unforgettable drawl saying one of his many quips still echo-friendly in my memory banks.

Very practically, Captain Herb’s approach to traffic reporting was thorough and unforgettable. God made Emory of that relentless stock - a fiber that made the man and those like him never stop digging to the bottom of something, especially when there was a mission. That drive and attention to detail, along with his warmth and humor, made Captain Herb’s WSB Radio and TV traffic reports invaluable.

One example of Captain Herb’s detail-driven content was his insistence on double or even triple-identifying road names. He had a keener sense than almost anyone of how average drivers refer to roads differently. This was a key ingredient that made his and WSB Triple Team Traffic’s rush hour reports mandatory for a savvy commuter. And he insisted that the people who worked alongside him do their reporting the same way.

I-285 can’t just be called “The Perimeter”, in fact, it probably needs to be called both. Naming a direction on I-285, which can be very confusing, should not go without an “Inner Loop” or “Outer Loop” moniker. Most people don’t know their cardinal direction on many roads, especially I-285.

Former fellow Traffic Team member Angie Powell taught me the loops in 2004, soon after I began my internship. She drew a circle and had me pretend it was the median wall. Someone driving counterclockwise is driving on the outside of that circle, so they are on the Outer Loop. We try very hard to ID I-285 in multiple ways every time we mention it, just as Captain Herb did.

We learn how people refer to roads by taking calls from our Traffic Troopers in our 24-Hour Traffic Center. We hear how first responders and dispatchers pronounce roads by hearing their transmissions on scanner radio feeds.

Another of the many ways we gather traffic info is by calling the various Metro Atlanta 911 dispatch centers at least once an hour and just asking for any problems on the roads the dispatchers may have, which also helps teach us different names for the same roads. During rush hours, we email our different traffic problems to one another. Rounds calls, as we call them, is the first thing in traffic that I got good at and I would proudly rattle off a list of wrecks to Captain Herb. Sometimes I would go on the air and throw in a crash I had just cleaned. Then the Traffic Center phone would ring with a familiar number.

“Hey, listen,” Captain Herb would gruffly begin. “Nelson Brogdon Boulevard and Highway 20 are the same road. It’s easier just to call it Highway 20, since it changes names so often, okay?” That accent. Captain Herb’s corrections for me and anyone else that worked closely with him taught us not only the different names of roads, but also the technique of not just trusting the name that one person or entity gives to a road.

For example, we don’t simply take information directly from GDOT, as is. The state may have one exact way they are reporting something or they are just echoing how a motorist reported it to them. There is no such thing as “I-75 at North Avenue.” At that Midtown spot, it is “I-75/85, the Downtown Connector.” Cobb PD often calls their wrecks “I-285/westbound at Atlanta Road,” for instance. But I-285 runs north and south at that point below I-75, not east and west.

Speaking about The Perimeter again, Captain Herb would constantly remind us of how I-285 crosses I-75, I-85, and I-20 twice each. So when we refer to those areas, we need to designate the county, city, and/or exit number, so people in Clayton County don’t get their part of I-285 confused with those in Cobb.

I will never forget the eloquent “Gridlock Guy” column that my buddy Mark Arum wrote shortly after Captain Herb’s death. Arum nails it: ”Your traffic reports every six minutes on WSB Radio will never be as good, your traffic reports every 10 minutes on WSB-TV will never be as good, this column will never be as good. They can’t be. Herb’s knowledge, experience, ambition, drive, determination, effort, voice and sense of humor can never be replaced.”

Captain Herb’s dedication to speaking a commuter’s language, instead of assuming they already speak his own, is one big example of how his knowledge, experience, ambition, and effort materialized. Emory’s commitment to learning the different road names and then being patient enough to teach green kids like Arum and me those same traffic hacks is one way that he learned and taught others how to speak the Atlanta driver’s language.

That language is changing and evolving. Few people know what Spaghetti Junction (where I-285 and I-85 meet in DeKalb), the Cobb Cloverleaf (I-285 and I-75′s intersection near Cumberland Mall), or Brookwood (where I-75 and I-85 come together on the north end of the Downtown Connector) is. Traffic dialects have changed between Baby Boomers, Gen-X’ers, Millennials, and Gen-Z’ers.

The average person now often speaks “GPS”, which is very technical. There are far more transient residents that have lived in this town for a short time than there were before. So the colloquial, homely monikers can end up as noise or gibberish. But knowing landmarks and nicknames is still necessary to speak the language of those that know them and radiate the warmth Captain Herb did. WSB Triple Team Traffic and I stay committed to learning and evolving with the traffic landscape. And we do so in the spirit of Captain Herb Emory - a gregarious and generous professor, muse, and bulldog, whom we will never forget.

We’d love to hear which road names confuse you and hear your favorite Captain Herb Emory memories. Send us an email and we would love to share both in Captain Herb’s honor.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.

In Other News