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Another Voice: Intelligent transportation systems may be able to eliminate traffic crashes

By Jim Barbaresso

Traffic deaths in the United States rose by 14 percent in the first six months of 2015, according to the National Safety Council. If this trend continues, annual traffic deaths might exceed 40,000 for the first time since 2007.

Over the next decade, experts anticipate that technology in the form of intelligent transportation systems (ITS) will increase traffic safety across the nation. ITS refers to advanced communications and information technology that connects vehicles to transportation agencies and systems. When combined with advanced sensors, driver assistance systems and smarter road design, ITS may be able to virtually eliminate traffic crashes.

Currently, nearly every highway, toll, transit, airport and rail project in the United States incorporates some aspect of ITS. A good example is the variable messaging signs that now operate on a number of major highways, including the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike. The Turnpike Authority installed 260 high-resolution, color LED signs, making New Jersey the first state to fully employ the high-tech signs for traffic management. Now, motorists know instantly from the sign’s color whether they are about to encounter congestion, receive general information or enter a construction zone.

But coming soon – and likely by the end of the decade – is V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) technology, which will allow transportation agencies to send data directly to your car or truck about accidents, approaching storms and alternate routes. V2V also will collect data about surrounding cars’ speeds and even traffic volumes to prevent crashes or redirect drivers to alternate routes.

According to a recent America THINKS survey conducted by HNTB, an architecture, civil engineering consulting and construction management company headquartered in Kansas City, Mo., this is exactly what the public wants. Seventy-one percent of Americans believe emerging technologies should be used to improve safety and 53 percent want technologies to provide current information about traffic conditions.

Many agencies already are preparing for the new technology. For example, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority recently buried a 48-strand fiber optic cable along a portion of the turnpike. In the future, when the Turnpike Authority needs that infrastructure to accommodate connected vehicles, it will be in place.

ITS will keep drivers better informed than ever before. With human error a factor in nearly 90 percent of highway crashes, and 30 to 50 percent of peak-period delays caused by crashes, ITS has the potential to change highway travel, saving lives, reducing injuries and providing improved mobility for the traveling public.

Jim Barbaresso is HNTB’s national practice leader for intelligent transportation systems.