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A blast of steel balls could fix a slick stretch of pavement at the Beltway's 'Big Curve'

Can an innovative technique compared to thousands of blasts from a shotgun roughen and repair a section of the Beltway that's seen dozens of big truck crashes?

BETHESDA, Md. — Back in September, WUSA9 told viewers about a pretty scary wave of big truck crashes on a notorious stretch of the Outer Loop in Bethesda called the Big Curve: 36 wrecks in less than six months. Miraculously, none of them were deadly.

Starting Monday, the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), State Highway Administration is launching a remarkable plan to fix the problem. It's planning to blast thousands of tiny steel balls into the pavement to make it less slick.

Firefighters said there were plenty of injuries in the crashes, with jack-knifed tractor-trailers hanging from flyovers, jersey walls shattered, even trailers broken loose, rolling into the roadway.

"We kind of scratch our head sometimes and wonder what the problem is," said Pete Piringer, a spokesman for Montgomery County Fire Rescue Services. "Talking to people involved in crashes, people that drive that way quite often, they say for some reason, they just lost control and they hit the wall."

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The Big Curve is where the Outer Loop flies over the southbound I-270 spur. Firefighters suspected the pavement there was especially slippery, especially in the rain. For $460,000, MDOT has it's hired a San Diego company called Skidabrader to rough up the asphalt. 

The constant pounding of tires on pavement polish the road surface into something as smooth as Plexiglass. This Skidabrader process is like firing buckshot into the surface, carving thousands of tiny craters, making it easier for tires to stick. 

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"It's an innovative technique that makes it easier for vehicles to stop and reduces hydroplaning," said Sherry Christian of the State Highway Administration.

It's the first time Maryland has tried something like this, but Skidabrader said it's helped make bridges, overpasses, even runways safer all across the country. The trucks vacuum up the steel balls and debris and recycle it as fast as they blast it.

The nighttime work on the Outer Loop between Connecticut and Bradley should be finished in a couple of weeks -- The Big Curve hopefully rendered less notorious. The state said blasting the roadway with the small steel balls has been shown to improve friction and drainage by as much as 70%. 

If it works on the Big Curve, Christian said the state may well try the same technique on other slick stretches all across the state.

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