WSDOT is starting to ramp up it’s public information campaign for Active Traffic Management Systems (ATMS). It was a good choice on their part to re-brand ATMS, and other associated ITS technologies, as Smarter Highways rather than the super nerdy acronym speak that engineers love. Continuing this theme, rather than fixating on the technology, WSDOT has chosen to focus on the driver experience, explain why this technology is needed and how it will improve drivers lives.

As part of this WSDOT has released information about Smarter Highways including the video above. I like the video but think that the interactive website does an even better job of stepping drivers through what to expect and how they should react. WSDOT also has a wordy folio, and a slick card.

More after the jump.

It’s good to see all this information because successful ATM systems must have the buy-in of drivers. This buy-in must come from an understanding that the system isn’t some big brother scheme to control them, rather it is an advanced information system that is designed to make their drive safer while also reducing congestion and harmonizing traffic. Ensuring that drives see this as an information system, not a penal system is critical.

With that said the speeds displayed on the sign bridges are the legal limit and will be enforced. WSP already has experience enforcing variable speed limits on the passes but will probably need some time to work out the most effective way to enforce the speed limits. When there is no speed reduction the signs will be off, which should help to ensure that drivers do not become indifferent to the system over time. Drivers will learn that if the system is active there is a reason for it. Also when this system launches, speed limits of all lanes will be the same. WSDOT might look at higher speed limits in the HOV lane but it appears that new legislation is necessary for that to be possible. I think this is the largest oversight of the project and hopefully is revised next legislative session.

Construction of the sign bridge foundations has been under way for some time now, which can be see every 1/2 mile on Northbound I-5. The first sign bridge will be placed in January, with the entire system on I-5 and SR-520 (I-5 to 130th Ave NE) will be operational this summer. The system on I-90 (I-5 to 150th Ave SE) will be operational by Spring 2011. Funding for I-5 is included in the Viaduct replacement project and SR-520 and I-90 are fund through the FHWA Urban Partnership which is part of the SR-520 bridge replacement project.

Please note that while STB obviously isn’t a huge fan of highways, better use of our existing roads, especially when it makes them safer, is good news.

34 Replies to “Smarter Highways”

  1. They have this system exactly as you describe it on the German autobahns. Well, there is a slight difference: when the speed limit is off — yes, they really can drive as fast as they want when conditions allow it — there is a big “NO” circle-with-a-slash displayed. When conditions demand a limit, the limit is displayed.

    It is incredible how immediately and completely traffic conforms to the posted speed. I think that since Germans get to express their Bernd Rosemeyer fantasies when skies are blue, they understand that it really, really makes sense to slow down when the folks with the stau cameras say so.

    1. Yeah. I’m living in Stockholm right now and I live by a school and drivers, even in the middle of the night, really do drive the speed limit of ~25 mph. I think that european counties have done a better job of keeping the dangers of driving the the forefront of drivers conscience. Just look at attitudes towards drunk driving 20 or 30 years ago or even now. In Sweden if you have a beer you don’t drive. Period.

      1. Adam, please do find out for us the process for getting a driver’s license in Sweden. I think you’ll find that only very few people can pass the rigorous tests there.

      2. And even fewer can front the money, I’m guessing. I remember in Germany getting your license costed on the order of thousands of euros

      3. You’ll find that getting a driver’s license in Sweden is timely and costly. I think attending a school is required. I’m not sure how many hours it takes, but you can expect the cost to get your license to be around 3000-4000kr (~500-600 USD). This is just what I recall from living there a few years ago, but I doubt it’s changed much. That said, you can drive on some foreign licenses. I rented vehicles and drove just fine on my US (Washington state) license.

    2. The Europeans also figured out that limited access highways are much safer and more efficient than the US model, where interchanges are built every mile, creating tie-ups, accidents, and “socially engineered” sprawl.

      1. The integration of this tech with HOT lanes is important, the likely tech upgrade path will be single lane HOT, two lane HOT, ITS Equiped Vehicle Required in one HOT lane, etc.

        BTW, folks speed regularly in the HOT on 167.

      2. Folks speed regularly in the HOV lane on I-5, too. (What would be the benefits/implications of an increased speed limit in the HOV lanes? Is it even feasible? Could it extend to per-lane speed limits, for a quasi-express lane effect?)

      3. a speed differential above about 10mph between lanes is a safety hazard. Just think of the problem when a vehicle moving slowly attempts to pull into a lane moving fast. However, if the lanes are separated physically, or even with striping, the hazard is reduced.

  2. It’s about time.

    It’s amazing how many rear-end collisions occur each day on local highways, as traffic goes from 60 mph to 0 quite frequently. If you have a big SUV with tinted windows in front of you (or a minivan, for that matter) it’s almost impossible to see the road conditions ahead. Of course, bus drivers and truck drivers have a much better view.

    Up until now, hundreds of millions of dollars in insurance claims have been filed because of our antiquated highway system, replete with on-ramp/off-ramp combinations, and lots of ridiculous forced weaves. And constant back-ups – like the one at Mercer on I-5 north just beyond the convention center.

    The state’s reponse to this chronic problem: put a WSP trooper nearby, so he can protect and clear the inevitable rear-end collision AFTER it happens.

    Alerting drivers to collisions and back-ups, and varying speeds to adapt to roadway conditions is a good thing. WSDOT should have done it a long time ago.

  3. I’ll be curious to see how this works in Seattle. It’s common here in the Netherlands, but people actually obey the signage. I recall using the variable speed zone on I-90 across Lake Washington and people still drove as fast as they possibly could just to slam on the breaks at the backup. Will be interesting to see if people actually obey it or just keep their old driving habits regardless of the signage.

    1. Yeah it is almost nation wide in the Netherlands but then again, as class mate of mine was saying tonight, you can go out partying anywhere in the Netherlands and make it home in a hour. Its a SMALL country.

      The variable speed limits on I-90 was a half assed attempt at ATMS and WSDOT knows that. How many people actually look at speed limit signs on the side of the road any more?

      Not only that, the new speed limit signs were not accompanied by additional information that gives the drivers any reason to believe that there is a need for them to slow down. Each 1/2 mile there will be a sign telling drivers why there is a reduced speed limit. This is VERY important and I should have touched on this in my post. Thanks for bringing this up.

      1. You can go anywhere in the Green Heart and make it home in an hour. I dare you to go from Maastricht to Groningen in such a short time.

      2. I dare you to go from Olympia to Seattle in an hour! Someone do it!

        Just kidding… driving-related dares seem dangerous. (But I know you were only issuing a rhetorical dare.)

  4. ATM means Automated Teller Machine, and that is exactly what WashDOT is doing in a last-ditch attempt to shove more cars into the system with blessings and support from Detroit, Big Oil and the Washington ACG.

    Will there be any speed enforcement? How will a variable message board stand up in court? Is the law and the courts set up for this?

    This stuff costs 1 to 1.5 million per mile. Can you imagine the bicycle infrastructure we could build for that money?

    1. Excellent point about enforcement by the courts – can I go in and whine to a magistrate or will there be true enforcement w/ suspensions and revocations? We are getting better slooooowly w/ DUI; can we say the same yet about speeders and those who injure/maim/kill pedestrians and cyclists?

  5. The way to enforce this is to include RFID tags on all new license plates. Have radar above all lanes every mile or two that interrogates the RFID tag of any car speeding. Include in the enabling legislation that the registrant of the car is liable for any speeding ticket generated by the vehicle; if you lend it to someone it’s your problem getting the fine back from the driver.

    Make the fine $20/mile per hour over the posted speed.

    Obviously, the system has to communicate among the various stations so that the speed is checked correctly.

    1. Technology exists today for automatic speed enforcement with license plate recognition and radar. I think it is used on many motorways in Europe.

      Bellevue and Issaquah already have speed cameras installed in a few school zones. The fine is $124.

      1. Photo identification doesn’t work on freeways, Oran. Which car in the photo is the one speeding? It’s fine on a single lane street by a school, but in multi-lane traffic it has to be done technologically by the radar.

        I don’t know if such a system is available at this time, but surely someone in Puget Sound could do the hardware and software required. Maybe we call it “LaneIx”.

        The key is putting it in replacement license plates.

      2. “Photo identification doesn’t work on freeways, Oran.”

        That’s not true, it’s already been implemented in England on their “smart” motorways. The number plate of every vehicle is photographed at certain intervals along the motorway and an average speed is calculated for each car. If your average speed is higher than the posted speed you’re sent a ticket.

      3. If they are doing this reliably, they have conquered some pretty difficult computer science problems. Differences in illumination are one clear potential difficulty. And they have to take the photos when the vehicles are at very nearly the same distance from the camera in all of the stations, otherwise pattern matching will be difficult. I guess some radar must trigger the camera at the proper instant. But if you’re going to use radar to trigger it, why not just use it to measure the instantaneous speed?

        And the obvious way to defeat such a system is to “muddy up” your plate.

        I think RFID tags with the plate number or something like the Good To Go tags would be much more reliable and simpler.

      4. Oh, and remember we’re talking about variable speed control, enforcement of which by its nature must change with the changes in the signs. That can most easily be done with instantaneous measurements, not the average speed, which by definition is “average”.

        Now I suppose you could do a logical integral by computing the elapsed time it “should” have taken the vehicle to cross the test zone using the two limits and then if it got there sooner, issue the ticket. But that is going to vary by where the car is between to notification signs when the speed changes. The driver may have been behind a larger vehicle at the time of change and unable to see the next changed sign until 300 feet before it.

      5. Multilane Phoenix freeways use cameras to catch speeders. And I have hard evidence :( that they found a way to make it work in Albuquerque on a 3+ lane interstate.

      6. Thanks for explaining how it works in England, Zed. I didn’t know it used an average speed.

        Photo ID works on freeways. We already have it here on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and soon to be on the 520 bridge for enforcing the electronic toll collection system. Instead of measuring speed it reads Good to Go! tags. The camera, one over each lane, knows exactly where the antenna or radar is pointed at so it can distinguish individual vehicles.

        I’m not sure but I think there is a law in this state that prohibits the electronic tolling system from being used to enforce speed limits.

      7. Now if they could just track Good-to-Go passes by VIN instead of license plate….

        A friend recently had the state send him new plates for his car. He put on the new plates, and promptly got a toll violation on the bridge.

        The state knows enough to associate the plate with the VIN, and the plate with a pass, but not enough to automatically update the pass system when they change someone’s plate number on them.

      8. Photo ID for speeding cars works great on highways. All you need is a camera, a stopwatch, and a calibrated distance. Take two photos a certain time interval apart, measure how far the car traveled between photos, and calculate the average speed (v=d/t). Simple.

  6. Seattle drivers, being what they are, will marginalize the benefits of this system.
    All it takes is about 5% jerks to screw things up.
    Scenario: The red x and yellow merge arrow turn on for the two right lanes. People start to move over and merge, as intended, but the jerks see this as an opportunity to zip ahead to the last moment, then force their way back over(just like they do before NB I5, before Spring St. to make the reversible lanes).
    Road Rage and endless traffic compression eddies begin!
    Will WSP enforce the red X lane restrictions? I doubt it. And merging rules are meaningless now, so I hope it works out, but have my doubts.
    Probably my biggest pet peeve along that stretch is the Columbia St on-ramp, NB-I5, when traffic is slow and the ramp is metered. Cars will pull out of the slow lane to charge ahead in the on-ramp lane to the last minute, then dart back in, cutting off someone else(usually a bus or truck), causing the rest of us to quick brake to avoid hitting them.
    They should issue dart guns to all cars. When you see a jerk style movement, paste a dart on the rear of their car. Anyone with more than 5 darts on the rear automatically gets a ticket.

    1. i think the point is to keep traffic flowing at a reduced but “free-flow” speed, so that vehicles will not have to merge into stopped traffic. Of course it depends on the normal-ish driver agressiveness curve, which implies that most drivers will choose to merge before the last minute. It’s true that this system won’t eliminate boorish behavior…

  7. Just looking into that video I can tell that we build highways wrong way.
    You could pass way more traffic if instead of having 4 lanes one way, 4 lanes other way (4+4), have 3 lanes one way (mostly for merging in/out), 3 lanes other way, and 2 lanes in the middle for going long distance without many merging lanes for longer distances.
    Lanes in the middle would be switching traffic direction based on time of the day.
    In the video, you can see that the oncoming lanes are pretty much not used at all..

    1. We do have reversible lanes. They’re on I-5 between downtown and Northgate, and on I-90 between downtown and Bellevue (?).

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