Adapting Existing Technology to Unusual Traffic Problems

The work zone ITS industry has produced many creative ways to help mitigate the impacts to traffic from work zones and to protect workers from that same traffic. But often the problems we solve aren’t the same ones we set out to address. This is true for most industries when they encounter new technology.

According to author H. W. Brand it was true for the movie industry as well. When the first “talkies” were released, “Sam Warner (of Warner Brothers’ fame) convinced his brothers to purchase a technology that allowed the attachment of sound to recording film.” “The initial appeal was that sound would permit theaters to dispense with the orchestras that played accompaniment to otherwise silent films.” Today we can’t imagine movies without the sounds of explosions, gun fire, and, of course, dialogue.  But they were focused on the economic benefits of the technology and so missed what we all see as the obvious artistic advantages.

The same is often true in our industry. Our technologies are more mature now, though new ideas are introduced every day. But too often we miss good opportunities to improve the safety or efficiency of our roads because we don’t have a prepackaged system ready to deploy.

In fact, we do have them ready. We just don’t think it through far enough. Most of our systems use sensors to measure traffic flow, then compare that data to a set of rules, which then trigger outputs like messages to message signs, or alarms at a traffic management center. So it does not matter what your traffic concern is, a system can probably be created to address it. And while such a system could be called “custom”, it won’t normally be saddled with the costs and lead times normally associated with custom systems.

Redding Map

A good example was a demo project done for Caltrans a few years ago. They were closing one of their busiest ramps in Redding for reconstruction. The plan called for them to send traffic to alternate ramps. But no one of those was capable of handling the volumes at the closed ramp. Road-Tech proposed a simple solution. A sensor was placed on each of the alternate ramps. And portable changeable message signs directed traffic to the best alternate. As traffic backed up on the first alternate ramp the sensor detected the stopped traffic. That caused the system to change the message signs to recommend the second alternate ramp. If that ramp backed up traffic was sent to a third alternate ramp.

It was simple, inexpensive, and worked very well. The only problem encountered was public outreach efforts scared everyone away. So the volumes were never as high as expected. But this does show what can be done with the tools we already have. No one talks about alternate ramp systems. But it turns out we had one ready to go. We just didn’t know it.

Next time you are faced with a traffic problem, try to imagine a rule. That rule would say, “If traffic does X, make Y happen.” So if traffic slows I want to change the message signs to warn of STOPPED TRAFFIC AHEAD. Or if average traffic speeds exceed 75 MPH, I want to send an alarm to the police department. If you can come up with a rule, a solution is probably already available. Keep that in mind and you’ll be surprised what can be done!

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