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A traveler's guide to Black Friday

If your big holiday trip amounts to no more than a short visit with nearby relatives, followed by a Friday commute or shopping excursion, there still are plenty of reasons to be prepared and alert.

Friday is not a holiday. The regular weekday rules are back in effect. Watch the reversible lane indicators and pay those parking meters. However, you will not encounter any local road construction on Friday or through the weekend.

The trains will run on a regular weekday schedule from 5 a.m. Friday to 3 a.m. Saturday. Trains on all lines will operate with six cars. Typically, Metrorail ridership the day after Thanksgiving is relatively light. Last year, Metrorail recorded 393,775 passenger trips, which is closer to ridership for a typical Saturday.

Shopping traffic
It's not the busiest shopping day of the season, but the traffic around the malls and the crowding in the parking areas does come as quite a shock for many on Black Friday.

Virginia traffic signals: The Virginia Department of Transportation will change the timing on traffic signals around 14 big shopping centers in Northern Virginia to cut down on delays and maximize traffic flow on the main roads. (Maryland uses a different signal system.)

This year, the signal switch will start on Thanksgiving Day, rather than on Friday. Traffic planners noted last year that volume started to build up a bit on Thanksgiving Day itself. The signals will remain on this seasonal timing through New Year's Day.

Some people get kind of anxious about the shopping thing. Tysons Corner Center, for example, plans to open at the stroke of midnight on Thanksgiving night. (That's 12 a.m. Friday.) But shoppers should check here to see when their store will be open.

VDOT has been retiming the signals based on holiday traffic patterns for more than a decade. This year, it developed new signal-timing plans for two more shopping centers, the Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets and the Dulles 28 Centre in Loudoun County.

This re-timing affects how drivers get through 188 intersections across Northern Virginia. Here's the full list of shopping areas where the signals are being adjusted:
Tysons and Galleria Shopping Centers, Reston Town Center, Fair Lakes Shopping Center, Fair Oaks Mall, Potomac Mills Mall, Manassas Mall, Route 234 shopping centers, Springfield Mall, Cascades Town Center, Potomac Run Center, Dulles Town Center

In parking areas
Pushing so many people together in parking areas raises security and safety concerns. Here's some advice from police and traffic experts.

Security: Park in a well-lighted space. Lock the car, close the windows and put the shopping bags and gifts in the trunk. Don't leave a GPS unit in plain sight. Even the telltale ring of the GPS suction cup on the windshield is an invitation to thieves.

Safety: Montgomery County recently discovered that a fifth of its pedestrian accidents happen in parking areas. Similarly, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that a fifth of all vehicle collisions that result in damage claims occur in parking lots. Drivers and walkers need to pay attention to each other, proceed slowly and turn their heads to look for trouble.

AAA Mid-Atlantic and other safety advocates offer these tips for staying sane and safe during holiday shopping:

-- Avoid petty confrontations over parking spaces. "Tempers can run high and patience short as drivers circle the parking lot in search of an empty parking space," says John B. Townsend II of AAA Mid-Atlantic.
-- Most malls have secondary entrances with less of a concentration of parkers around them.
-- Outlying areas in parking lots normally have more open spaces, lighter traffic and a lower risk of collision. And it doesn't hurt to walk off the holiday calories. But be conscious of the security issues mentioned above.
-- Use your headlights in parking areas. Help other drivers and pedestrians to see you coming.
-- Avoid parking between tall SUVs or minivans. It might be hard to see oncoming people and cars when you back out later. (I know: You control where you park, but not who will park around you while you're shopping.)
-- If you won't impede traffic flow, back into a space or pull through two spaces to park, so you won't have to reverse when you leave.
-- Children may be below your usual line of vision, and can make quick movements.
-- Practice defensive walking. Anticipate vehicle movements by looking for car exhaust or reverse lights.
-- Make eye contact. If you're not sure what the other person is going to do, stop.

By Robert Thomson  |  November 25, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Commuting , Congestion , Driving , Metro , holiday travel , transit  | Tags: Black Friday, Dr. Gridlock, travel tips  
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Something I would add: If there are other people driving in the same parking lane as you, use your turn signal to indicate when you plan to park. Aside from being the standard etiquette for claiming a space, it's also very helpful if you're a back-in parker, as the guy behind you otherwise has no idea you plan to stop and throw it in reverse. If you put on your blinker, he can back off a bit as you slow down, but if you don't use your blinker and you just stop suddenly, good luck getting someone to back up for you if there's another car behind him. (I used to hate it when I worked downtown and the back-in crowd expected everyone to be mind-readers about how they planned to park.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 25, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: I like 1995hoo's suggestion on the lost art of applying turn signals. Some drivers use turn signals only to help themselves and forget the numerous situations in which they help other drivers and pedestrians.

Posted by: Dr_Gridlock | November 25, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

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