New advances in high technology promise to make the road ahead a lot safer for all
ITS solutions are headed to highways near you.
It really wasn't so long ago that the apex of highway safety design appeared to be such hardware solutions as concrete "Jersey barriers," pavement "rumble strips," lane-defining "turtles," and big orange "crash barrels" filled with sand.
These colorfully named devices and other brawny "real-world" approaches to making our roadways safer still have their place.
Not only do they help prevent accidents or limit their severity, their presence on the roadside is a mute reminder that driving a truck, or a car, for that matter, is - and always will be - serious business.
But fortunately for everyone who depends on the nation's highways, new technologies that advance safety beyond the realm of the hard and fast are increasingly being applied.
Most if not all of these high-tech solutions can be lumped under the heading of "intelligent transportation systems," or simply ITS.
They run the gamut from devices that help boost safety by making traffic flow more smoothly to those that alert drivers of road hazards.
Here are just a few examples of ITS solutions that may be headed to a city street, country road or Interstate highway near you:
n Traveler information, displayed roadside or via "traffic cams" that feed live video to local television outlets.
n Signal-optimization algorithms that increase arterial traffic flow.
n Meters that control access to on ramps.
n Managed lanes that control entry on the basis of number of vehicle occupants or by paying a variable toll.
Much of the ITS approach is geared toward making roads "smarter" by putting into place electronic and other high-tech systems that commercial drivers and other motorists can depend on to keep traffic flowing smoothly around fixed impediments, like bridges and toll booths, as well as past accident scenes.
Indeed, wherever traffic congestion can be thinned out, the risk of accidents occurring on the affected stretch of highway lessens.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based smart-highway advocacy group ITS America, the average driver spends 34 hours a year stuck in traffic.
Those lost minutes don't just drain away productivity, they increase frustration behind the wheel, which can lead motorists and truckers alike to engage in such unsafe driving practices as tailgating, lane-weaving and passing in breakdown lanes.
That's why publicly chartered organizations like the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) have begun to cast wider nets in their search for solutions to unclogging highways.
The commission serves as the official planning and review agency for the nine-county Philadelphia metropolitan region.
Rather than limit its highway planning efforts to those jurisdictions, DVRPC this year invited a host of organizations in the tri-state (Delaware-Pennsylvania-New Jersey) region it serves to help it determine how to better manage "traffic incidents."
BALL ROLLERS Invited to a workshop held earlier this year to get the ball rolling were the American Trucking Assns.; the Mid-Atlantic AAA; the City of Philadelphia; the state police and departments of transportation of Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania; the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the National Incident Management Coalition (NIMC).
NIMC, which served as the catalyst for the workshop as well as some 20 others held around the country, said it was the first such forum to bring together traffic stakeholders from three states.
"If we can bring together the many diverse groups that respond to traffic incidents," says DVRPC executive director John Coscia, "as well as those who make decisions regarding the funding and planning of highway management, then we can begin to deal with this crucial issue."
While cooperation among the disparate groups that impact highway design is key to improving safety on the road, a lot can be gained by looking for answers farther afield.
This summer, FHWA administrator Kenneth Wykle and acting deputy administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) Clyde J. Hart Jr. released a report suggesting the U.S. could benefit from adopting some European practices and policies to improve highway safety.
FHWA's Office of International Programs penned "Commercial Vehicle Safety Technology and Practice in Europe," with the input of FMCSA. The report details emerging safety systems and technologies that impact the areas of human-factor engineering, equipment and infrastructure design, as well as organizational structures.
"The U.S. and Europe share common commercial-vehicle safety issues," Wykle says. "This report provides descriptions of many of the best practices and policies in Europe that could be adapted for use in the U.S. as we continue working to improve commercial-vehicle safety."
Recommendations in the report, which is based on research into safety efforts in France, Germany, The Netherlands and Sweden, include the following:
n Driver management in Europe begins with mandatory and extensive training. In the U.S., safety improvements could be gained by developing a well-rounded standard curriculum for driver education and by using performance data to better assess the needs of both drivers and the carriers employing them.
n European truck builders are developing - and deploying - new vehicle safety systems. On this side of the pond, there could be greater focus on driver acceptance of safety systems as well as greater use of crash-investigation data to make vehicles and highways safer.
n A recent Dutch innovation combines roadside and in-company inspections. That suggests the possibility of safety self-certification by carriers, as well as the feasibility of using third-party advisors to improve carrier regulatory compliance - freeing government resources to concentrate on high-risk operations.
The full report can be accessed on the Internet by clicking on the web site of FHWA's Office of International Programs at www.international.fhwa.dot.gov.
Anyone who has faith in technology as the best approach to improving roadway safety had to be heartened by Congressional action taken just last month.
By wide margins (344 to 50 in the House; 78 to 10 in the Senate) on October 6, Congress passed a $58-billion annual spending bill for the Dept. of Transportation (DOT).
MILLIONS AND BILLIONS The legislation earmarks $218 million for dedicated ITS programs - not to mention $10 billion that can be used for ITS projects at the discretion of state governments.
Of the $218 million, $100 million will go into ITS research, with the balance slated for ITS project deployments in specific locations. At press time, President Clinton was expected to sign the bill.
Another important - and ongoing - ITS development is DOT's proposed rules for ITS architecture and standards conformity. Since the extended comment period for these regs closed on September 23, issuance of a final proposal is probably still at least a few months away. The proposal can be accessed via DOT's web site: www.dot.gov.