Getting You Home Faster (11-24-1958)

We take it for granted.  We’re in our cars and things are moving slowly.  So we fiddle around with the radio until we find a traffic report.  Damn—should’ve gotten off at the last exit!

On this date in Chicago history, the Tribune ran a small piece headed “Cop in Copter to Help Untie Traffic Knot.”  The city would now be getting traffic reports on WGN radio, from a policeman in a helicopter.

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Earlier generations relied on public transit.  Those commuters didn’t worry about traffic conditions because there wasn’t much they could do about it.  They got on the streetcar and hoped for the best.

But that was changing in the 1950s.  More people were buying cars.  The city was also building a network of expressways.  The commuter could now choose the best route to take.

The new traffic-copter service was planned as a regular part of WGN’s weekday schedule.  Reports would be broadcast beginning at 4:15 PM, and continue at 15-minute intervals until 5:45.  The focus would be on major arteries such as Lake Shore Drive, Michigan Avenue, and the Congress (Eisenhower) Expressway.

(Notice how much lighter traffic was in 1958.  The evening rush started after 4 o’clock and was over before 6.  And that same issue of the Tribune also reported on a 17-block-long traffic snarl near the Hillside tollway junction—that was so rare it was considered a news story!)

The reporter in the copter was Leonard Baldy, a 31-year-old Chicago police officer.  Baldy was already known for his work presenting traffic safety programs to civic groups and at schools.  He was also a pioneer in the use of radar speed-detection devices.

The WGN traffic copter was an immediate success.  Then, one week after its launch, a major fire broke out at Our Lady of the Angels School on the West Side.  Officer Baldy was soon in the air, and his reports helped emergency vehicles find the quickest routes to the scene.

During the next year, WGN expanded its traffic reports to include the morning rush hour.  Other stations took up the idea.  Today we can’t do without them.

Officer Leonard Baldy was killed on May 2, 1960, when his copter malfunctioned and crashed.  Chicago’s Finest, a biography by his son Tim, was published in 2006.

—30—

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