Variable Speed Limit Webinar

Variable speed limits systems have always, at least intuitively, promised benefits for work zones including greater throughput, reduced speed variance, and as a result, fewer crashes. We discussed these systems in a post in October 2015 after a presentation at the National Rural ITS meeting in Utah. The concept made sense and we looked forward to greater use of VSL systems.

A webinar was just offered April 4th by the US DOT Office of Assistant Secretary for Research & Technology entitled, “Variable Speed Limit Systems – Are They For Everyone?” The speakers, and there were several of them, did a great job of explaining the advantages and disadvantages of these systems. Those speakers included Jimmy Chu of FHWA, John McClellan of MnDOT, Bryan Katz of Toxcel, Jiaqi Ma of Leidos, and Vinh Dang of WsDOT.

There wasn’t a lot of new information. Instead they presented a comprehensive history of VSL systems from around the country. They looked at different uses for these systems, including work zones. In all, more than a dozen different projects from 9 different states were discussed. Some projects were relatively small, and others like those in Minneapolis and Seattle, were quite large.

But in almost every case, the results of these systems have not met expectations.  This was true for weather related systems, work zones, and congestion management applications. Reductions in speed variance and crashes were very small if not non-existent. And the reason in every case was a lack of conformance by the traveling public. There was some smoothing, but very little.

Many of the system designers anticipated this and included variable message signs alongside the VSL signs to explain why the speed reduction was justified. But drivers either misunderstood when they were supposed to slow or simply chose to continue at their current speed until they saw the problem for themselves.

Law enforcement is critical for these installations. Without enforcement, compliance will never reach levels that will result in the benefits designers expected. But law enforcement often became distrustful of the data they received, or didn’t get timely notifications at all. They also ran into serious resistance from the courts. So enforcement slowed, and compliance tanked.

There is still hope that these issues will one day be resolved. But for now, variable speed limit systems just aren’t providing the benefits we all hoped to see.  The webinar closed with a short discussion of future considerations. One thought was to combine these systems with a larger big data process (as discussed in our last post). They might look at not just weather, or work zone conditions, but also at traffic speed and volume data approaching the area, timing of major events, and more to improve drivers trust of VSLs.

Another thought was with regard to automated vehicles. Will VSL systems be more effective when the information is sent directly to each vehicle? If a pop-up display recommends slowing to 35, will they be more likely to do so? Or will they continue to ignore them as they apparently do now? Once autonomous (driverless) cars are on the road, the recommendations from these systems will be adopted automatically. But until then, compliance will remain the biggest problem for VSLs.

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