Making Roads Safer

February 19, 2007
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A consortium of private and public stakeholders has high hopes that emerging technology will help make the nation's deadliest, most vulnerable and most valuable system safer and more efficient.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 42,000 people die on the nation's roadways each year, with traffic accidents the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 4 and 33. Remarkably, that represents less than 1 percent of the more than 6 million crashes reported to police each year. Roughly a third of those involve injuries, a total of 2.5 million people.

Between casualties and property damage, crashes represent an annual drain of $230.6 billion on the nation's economy each year, not including the myriad impacts of traffic congestion — estimated to be at least $200 billion for freight bottlenecks alone by the National Retail Federation.

"In urban areas like Grand Rapids, there isn't any room to expand," said Jim Snell, senior transportation planner for the Grand Valley Metro Council, explaining that most of U.S. 131 and large parts of the region's other freeways and highways are constricted by development, making it extremely difficult to add capacity.

"You can't add lanes, and if you build up, that's really expensive. … It's almost impossible to expand facilities," he said. "So you use technology to increase capacity without adding lanes."

Snell sits on the board of directors of ITS-Michigan — the state's branch of the U.S. DOT Intelligent Transportation Systems program — part of an $8.5 million federally funded initiative to implement ITS systems on Michigan Department of Transportation roadways in the coming year.

At the concept level, ITS involves the application of advanced communications and data systems to better manage traffic. In West Michigan, it is currently visible as a handful of digital signs on roadways that alert drivers to current conditions, the speed monitor points to collect that data, and the city of Grand Rapids' traffic-light systems, which update signal patterns throughout the day in response to traffic patterns.

"We're looking at ways we can build on top of that system with technology and innovation to improve traffic safety and optimize the road structure," said Gregory Krueger, MDOT's statewide ITS program manager.

At its base level, ITS centers on communication, particularly in alerting drivers to congestion on their routes and in alerting authorities to problems as they occur. Customized traffic reports that can be e-mailed or text-messaged to cell phones are already in development. Traffic jams can be mitigated by keeping drivers out of congested areas and by aiding authorities in the removal of the problem.

The applications that could arise in the coming years are far more advanced, particularly if state and federal efforts toward ITS's major initiative, Vehicle Infrastructure Integration, are successful.

Currently being tested in Southeast Michigan with assistance from all the major automakers, MichiganStateUniversity and the University of Michigan, the VII vision is a nationwide deployment of a communications infrastructure linking major roadways to automobiles equipped with a communications device and GPS unit. By simply monitoring the movement of vehicles, traffic managers can easily determine traffic and weather conditions. The system would immediately alert controllers to traffic problems, and as the system progresses, immediately share that data with drivers.

By monitoring when and where vehicles apply their brakes, the system could determine where traffic jams, slippery roads or other problem areas occur. With the application of more advanced on-vehicle equipment, such as those currently in use on vehicles equipped with General Motors' OnStar system, both traffic controllers and authorities can be instantly alerted to an accident as it occurs.

"And you can extend that out to more futuristic applications," Krueger said. "Your vehicle could alert you when a signal is about to go red, or automatically apply the brakes. If you're going too fast and sliding through it, the system can hold the light until you're safely on the other side."

Other possible applications include "virtual rumble strips" that alert drivers when they are leaving the road, operational and maintenance alerts, as well as information concerning oncoming emergency vehicles, road construction, rail intersections, curve or slope warnings, and practically any application that could improve road safety and efficiency through communication.

Grand Haven-based Azulstar Networks recently built a proof-of-concept pilot site at a DaimlerChrysler facility in Auburn Hills, and is planning another as part of its ongoing regional Wi-Fi deployment in Silicon Valley.

Michigan, California and Florida were selected as lead states for the VII initiative, with Michigan the only site with a pilot program currently underway.

DaimlerChrysler is testing 600 vehicles on a Wi-Fi network. Nissan is currently building another test site in Lansing centered on intersection safety.

Azulstar CEO Tyler van Houwelingen believes VII could be a core component of the Wi-Fi and WiMax Internet systems currently being deployed throughout the nation.

"You would have a frequency for police, one for fire, traffic, business, and then one for mass consumer use," he said. "Once every car is connected, you can get a very detailed diagnostic of what is happening in a car and on the road. … It's quite a challenge; the network has to be completely reliable, robust and anonymous."

The DOT is targeting a nationwide rollout for 2010. The Federal Communications Commission has allotted ITS a band of frequencies at 5.9Ghz.

Motor Vehicle Deaths

       2001       2002        2003        2004        2005
Kent County 58 81 76 60 52
Michigan 1,328 1,277 1,283 1,159 1,129

National 2004

Fatal                  38,253
Injury 1,862,000
Property Damage Only 4,281,000
Total 6,181,000
Crash Victims           Killed                    Injured
Drivers 23,063


Passengers 9,991 811,000
Unknown Driver/Passenger 80 1,000
Motorcycle Riders 4,008 76,000
Pedestrians 4,641 68,000
Pedal Cyclists 725 41,000
Other 128 9,000
Total 42,636 2,788,000

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation

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