Naked City

Amber Alert Alarm

Austin drivers saw an Amber Alert in action last week; Texas Dept. of Transportation billboards broadcast information on a truck carrying a kidnapped 14-year-old from Nevada (and her biological mother, whose parental rights were terminated, and her boyfriend, who's on probation on a felony assault charge). The system worked -- a trucker saw the white Chevy truck on I-37 in Atascosa County and called 911.

Those fancy electronic signs, though, weren't put there so drivers could spot missing kids. In Austin, they have only rarely been used for their real purpose -- alerting motorists to hazards and congestion as part of a "intelligent transportation system" or ITS. "We're still putting the system together," says TxDOT spokesman John Hurt. "It's not even one-third complete." Once TxDOT completes its new traffic management center, the ITS billboards will carry continuous "real-time data" to help drivers, as they do in other Texas cities.

Of course, that data might be preempted by constant Amber Alerts, given the national hysteria about a "rash" of kidnappings. Local authorities and broadcasters are less than thrilled that a Texas-wide Amber Alert was activated for a parental kidnapping, several states away and several days earlier, of a child unlikely to be in danger, at the request of one local police officer. Though happy the Nevada girl was found, Gov. Rick Perry's office, which oversaw the hastily assembled Amber Alert system, says they'll review the criteria for using it lest citizens and drivers be overwhelmed by indiscriminate alarms.

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