By Ed Brock

Eighteen-year-old Brian Varner of Jonesboro was stuck in traffic for 45 minutes last year after an accident on I-285 near Spaghetti Junction.

"I was mad," Varner said.

He is one of tens of thousands who spend wasted time sitting in their cars, sometimes for hours, after wrecks block the interstates.

Nearly 50 percent of the traffic congestion in the Atlanta region is caused by non-recurring incidents such as vehicle accidents, disabled vehicles, spills and debris, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.

A group looking into reducing these delays, the Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Task Force, was formed a year ago in an effort organized in part by GDOT and the Federal Highway Administration.

One purpose of the task force is to bring together all the different agencies involved in responding to incidents on interstates and state highways such as police and fire departments, 911 dispatchers and transportation agencies.

"By bringing us together we can look at it from different angles and see how can we make it better," said Robert Smith, Traffic Control Center manager for Clayton County, who attended the group's first meeting.

Being in the task force also promotes a more regional outlook in the participants, a better understanding of how incidents that occur in Clayton County affect the rest of the metro area and vice-versa, Smith said.

"We can't just bury our heads and say it's not in the county, don't worry about it," Smith said.

Smith's job in the event of a major traffic incident on the interstate is to manage traffic flow on county roads when drivers begin to get off the interstate to escape the backed up traffic. He can change the timing on traffic lights from the traffic control center.

Clearing an accident is important not only for the convenience of commuters, Smith said.

"The quicker you clean it up the less secondary incidents occur," Smith said.

The Atlanta area is growing fast and most of the traffic problems in the area are related to that growth, said Mike Kenn of the Georgians for Better Transportation who spoke at the TIME meeting. Newcomers come to the city from many different parts of the country, Kenn said, leading to a kind of culture clash.

"When everybody comes to Atlanta everybody brings their own driving culture," Kenn said.

Another goal of the task force is to educate the public on their role in keeping the roads clear after an accident. One thing many Georgians may have forgotten or haven't heard about is the "steer it-clear it" law that was passed five or six years ago, said Vicki Gavalas with the Georgia Department of Transportation.

"What it does is allow for cars that are still moveable where there are no injuries or fatalities to be moved to the side of the road," Gavalas said.

That's news to John Brewer who commutes from Macon to Morrow.

"I didn't know that's the law, but it is common sense," Brewer said. "But obviously people are freaked out that if they don't leave everything the way it was they won't be able to prove what happened."

GDOT is also putting together some tips for what drivers should do after an accident.

"The general rule of thumb is to stay in your car (if you are in a center lane)," Gavalas said. "You're safer with that car around you."

And if the car ends up on the side of the road and the driver can safely get out, get as far away as possible from the car, Gavalas said.

Roadwork causes more delays than accidents, said Wendell Perkins of McDonough.

"I drive on I-75 to work and I don't have problems," Perkins said. "I come through there at 6 a.m., so that might be why."