New app helps the visually impaired navigate work zones

By Melissa Turtinen

The Minnesota Department of Transportation has funded a smartphone application that will help the visually impaired navigate construction zones.

MnDOT says approximately 17 percent of work zone fatalities nationwide are pedestrians, and those who are visually impaired are even more at risk. That’s why MnDOT funded the University of Minnesota research, led by Chen-Fu Liao, to develop a cell phone app that can guide visually impaired pedestrians around those construction zones, MnDOT says. The final report on the U of M’s research was released last month.

Before developing the app, researchers surveyed visually impaired people about what information would be helpful when navigating a work zone, MnDOT said.

All a pedestrian needs is a smartphone – and on the construction site, to make the app work, a small box is added to a traffic signal box. The app uses GPS and Bluetooth technologies to find a person’s location and, once a work zone is detected, the smartphone vibrates and announces an audible message describing what street he or she is facing, how many lanes of traffic there are, and how and when to walk through the intersection safely, KARE 11.

“This information can be used to guide them, which direction they are going and tell them when it’s the appropriate time to cross the intersections. Making a decision at the intersection is very critical and it could be life threatening,” Liao told KARE 11 in 2012.

The user can also tap the smartphone to repeat the messages if needed, MnDOT says.

The U of M research team tested the smartphone app by attaching four Bluetooth beacons to light posts near a construction site in St. Paul, MnDOT says.

And after years of research, the navigational app could become available to more than 50 million visually impaired Americans in the near future, KARE 11 reported. But first, researchers need to conduct a few more tests to evaluate how reliable and useful the app is.

For those who don’t have smartphones, state officials are also looking into special equipment that could relay the same audible warnings at affected work zones.

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