Software speeds response to car accidents, traffic congestion

Software developed by Ohio State University engineers promises to help authorities respond to car accidents quicker and  ease traffic back-ups at lower cost, particularly in rural areas.  The timing of the software release comes as the July 4th holiday is upon us and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted that  July 3 and July 4 are among the deadliest days of the year to drive.  The software helps the existing computerized boxes locate road incidents more efficiently meaning for a large city like Columbus, Ohio, the savings could add up to tens of thousands of dollars a month. For a state like California the savings could be over a million dollars a year, researchers say. Traffic detectors – basically car-sized wire loops buried in the pavement -- are already deployed in many highways to monitor traffic at key points on the road network.  Today’s systems work when a car passes over a loop, the detector sends a signal to a computer in a control box at the side of the road. The controller may simply count the number of cars that pass by and calculate average speed, or it may actively control traffic. Ramp meters are one example -- they limit the number of cars entering a freeway by controlling a traffic signal on the on-ramp.  The main cost of using such devices is the cost of sending electronic signals between them and the transportation center that is doing the monitoring. Normally, controller boxes transmit their data very frequently. Some do so as often as once every twenty seconds, researchers say. Instead of sending all of the data all of the time, the new software infers road conditions based on traffic patterns. It determines whether conditions are critical enough for an alert to be sent to a state transportation authority. Otherwise, it sits quietly and leaves the communication channel free. For example, if traffic stalls at an interchange, the controller box could alert authorities that it suspects an accident. If conditions are fine, no data are sent, said Benjamin Coifman, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and geodetic science at Ohio State in a statement.  The approach is more efficient, because the controller boxes only send signals to the control center when absolutely necessary, which reduces communications costs. The transportation authorities would only need to electronically "ping" a quiet station once in a while, to make sure it was still working. Between pings, the station would store non-critical data -- such as the traffic counts that authorities use to determine if a road needs resurfacing -- to be retrieved later. In the October 2007 issue of the journal Transportation Research Part A, they report that their software achieved better than 90% accuracy in reporting traffic conditions at the interchange between two busy Columbus, Ohio interstates -- using up to 200 times fewer signals than before. Whenever a detector noticed a dramatic decrease in the speed of cars or the number of cars that passed by, it communicated with the traffic management center, which then pinged the neighboring detector stations to perform a kind of triangulation to locate the incident that was affecting traffic. The researchers cited a report that estimated the net cost of urban congestion in the United States to be over $63 billion in 2003, almost double the cost of 10 years earlier. The average American also loses 47 hours to traffic delays every year. More than half of those costs -- both in time and money -- were found to be due to roadway incidents such as accidents, researchers said. Accidents and response times will be on the minds of many this week as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted that July 3 and July 4 are among the deadliest days of the year to drive.  Both days are in the top 10 deadliest days, according to 25 years of data the agency said.  The top deadliest days to travel are:  July 4,  July 3, Dec. 22, Dec. 23, Dec. 24, Aug. 3, Aug. 4,  Jan. 1, Sept. 1, Sept. 2.  The NHTSA also tracked the deadliest times and days of the week to be driving. The afternoon commute from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. is the most dangerous time of day because drivers tend to be in a rush to get home. The next most deadly time on the road is 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., followed by 9 p.m. to midnight, then noon to 3 p.m. and midnight to 3 a.m. Saturday though is the deadliest day of the week to drive, followed by Sunday and then Friday.  

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