The government is developing technology to help drivers avoid accidents.
With highway fatality statistics refusing to budge, the government is developing technology that can help drivers avoid accidents. Drivers are distracted, fatigued and overstressed—and their driving habits account for 90 percent of all accidents. Researchers are looking at technology to help cut down on tailgating, poor decisions navigating intersections, and rollover and run-off-the-road accidents.
Crashes at intersections, according to year-2000 government statistics accounted for 23 percent of all fatalities, (8,500) and 48 percent of all injuries. The Department of Transportation opened a new highway intersection test facility at the Federal Highway Administration Highway Research Center in McLean, VA to study the problem.
The test intersection, the first of its kind in the United States, will be used to develop and evaluate in-vehicle and in-roadway systems that can warn drivers of impending crash situations. Two roads that go nowhere cross on the facility's campus. At the opening demonstration, a number of systems designed to keep drivers from tailgating, running off the road, or meeting a red-light runner were on display. In addition to passenger-vehicle systems, new safety systems for tractor-trailers and buses were also put through their paces.
Among the new signs being tested are a series of large red lights mounted above the roadway, which begin to flash when a red light runner is detected, to warn motorists with the right of way to stop and avoid a crash. Using sensors embedded in the roadway, a large blinking "No Left Turn" sign lights up when vehicles in the crossroad are too near or traveling too fast for a safe left turn. An in-vehicle system that works with the sensors embedded in the roadway triggers a high-pitched beep and a red light on the dashboard when a left turn is unsafe.
Rural roads are even more dangerous than urban roads. Two-thirds of all highway fatalities occur on rural roads even though two-thirds of all accidents occur on urban roads. Rural drivers entering state highways from farm roads or secondary roads are at the mercy of fast-moving vehicles passing through the countryside. Both UC Berkley and the University of Minnesota are working on high-tech signs placed at rural road entrances that flash when high-speed vehicles are detected too close to make a safe turn onto the highway. These smart intersections are not operating outside of the testing grounds, but are expected to make it into the real world within five years.
To bring the driver's mind back to the business at hand, engineers are experimenting with bells, audio warnings and rumbling of the driver's seat to wake up distracted drivers. Engineers are tinkering with the pulse rate of flashing "No Left Turn" signs to see what pace best fires the driver's neurons. Smart signs are seen as a quicker solution than waiting for the nation's fleet to include in-vehicle systems. Smart signs are everyone's safety devices while the in-vehicle systems are, at present, safety for the well off.
To get it right, the government is conducting research into how people drive their cars, interact with traffic signs and the warning systems in their cars. The Virginia Department of Transportation is conducting a year-long study using 100 cars driven by 100 ordinary people with extraordinary companions on board: five cameras that keep a constant eye on the front and rear of the car, the lane-tracking of the vehicle and the behavior of the driver, and a computer that crunches all the data. VDOT can download data from the cars on a regular basis from free parking spots allotted to the volunteers.
Because 90 percent of crashes involve driver error, VDOT wants to build a solid database of real time driver behavior. The program began in January and will run for a year. So far there have been seven accidents, mostly fender benders. The cameras have recorded drivers eating, chatting on the cell phone and putting on make-up while they drive. One young driver made a wrong turn at 3 a.m. into the CIA headquarters and was detained for 90 minutes because her vehicle contained five cameras and an on-board computer. The car was held for two days and returned with its data wiped.
Heavy trucks moving across country have an annual crash rate of 4,770 according to DOT statistics. Over half of those accidents occur in the front of the truck. Freightliner, a division of DaimlerChrysler has a SmartCruise control feature that detects a slower moving vehicle in front and decelerates the engine to maintain a safe following distance. It also has a radar-based collision warning system, which alerts the driver to potential hazards like a stopped vehicle in the roadway. When a potential hazard is detected, the driver gets both visual and audible warnings.
A crash involving a tractor-trailer on urban beltways has the potential to snarl traffic for hours. A new anti-rollover system in the Freightliner works with the anti-lock braking systems and alerts the driver to a potential rollover and slows the truck to reduce the risk of an accident. Some trucks have GPS tracking systems that can alert the driver when he or she approaches a high-accident area. Trucking companies that transport hazardous materials use this system to alert the company if the truck is in an accident and management can then contact local authorities to inform them of the material(s) onboard and how it can best be cleaned up.
Marty Fletcher, director of technology and training with U.S. Xpress, Inc. said his company has been using a collision avoidance system since 1996. He estimated that it had reduced the company's accidents by 50 to 60 percent. In 2002 there was a huge pileup of vehicles in the fog outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee involving over a 100 vehicles. A U.S. Xpress truck was involved in the crash, but the warning system allowed the driver to pull over to the right on the grass, missing a tanker truck in front of him and avoiding a fiery crash.