Integrating advanced technology

Thanks to research, the toolbox of technologies for transportation decision makers has never been better stocked

DalTrans TMCRapid, effective deployment of technology seems always at the forefront of modern transportation research. Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) researchers developed some of the first sophisticated and precise computer programs devoted to urban traffic management and the first implemented freeway surveillance and control systems in Houston and Dallas. TTI also pioneered ALERT — Advanced Law Enforcement and Response Technology — in the mid-1990s and has consistently undertaken research to integrate safety, technology and data collection. The early efforts in this area strove to clear crash scenes more quickly, enhance safety for police officers and ensure the accuracy of traffic crash data. That work continues today.

The cyber solution

The events that follow the crunch of metal and glass in a traffic crash yield critical information for transportation decision makers. Details from the crash scene might describe an intersection in need of improvement (better lighting, signage or pavement) or a section of roadway where drivers need a bit more attention from law enforcement. In the past, details and drawings from crashes were handwritten by crash scene officers and later entered into a database system.

Passing handwritten data from source to source can lead to delay and unintended data entry errors. If, based on a wealth of crash data, decisions do need to be made, city traffic engineers and others require timely, reliable data so they can make improvements quickly.

TTI Research Engineer Robert Benz is working on just such a method, one that involves accurate data reported quickly.

“The Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Department of Public Safety have worked together on the Crash Records Information System, a database that collects crash information statewide,” says Benz. However, the sheer volume of crash data for a state the size of Texas, with literally billions of pieces of information to sort through, can lead to systematic delays in searching. “We’re working with the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Regional Safety Council to create a query tool that will speed up searches for information by sifting out the bulk of the statewide data they don’t need in order to make local decisions.”

A tool like that can reduce searches for crash data on problem areas from hours — even days — to minutes.

“In other words, we’re taking this whole universe of crash data statewide and drilling local decision makers down to a level where they can request a specific subset of records,” says Benz. “We’re also surveying local law enforcement officers to see what technologies they have that could improve the accuracy and timeliness of the data.”

For example, Benz says that crash officers frequently have to estimate where exactly a crash occurred along a roadway. Global positioning systems (GPS) in the officer’s vehicle — or a handheld device — could provide more precise location information. In addition, approximately 60 percent of Houston-area officers have a mobile data terminal (MDT) laptop in their vehicle. Officers could immediately enter crash information on their MDTs instead of relying on the older handwritten system. This should significantly reduce error due either to miskeyed information by clerical staff or the misinterpretation of an officer’s handwriting.

“The idea is to see where we stand in the realm of technology in the field,” says Benz. “The value for local agencies is that when they get a concerned call about an area, they can dig up the data and see if there’s a crash pattern and an engineering solution. Engineers could get on the phone with citizens, look at the data and respond more quickly with transportation decisions.”

train at highway-rail grade crossingEarly on the morning of July 23, 2003, a truck hauling sodium hydroxide stalled on a highway-rail grade crossing in Sugar Land, Texas. Thanks to a rail monitoring system developed by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and TTI, police dispatchers were immediately able to see that a train was approaching the grade crossing at 44 miles per hour. The police dispatcher immediately alerted the railroad and police units to the situation. Dispatchers continued to monitor the train’s location and speed as it drew closer to the disabled truck. Alerted in part by flares placed on the railroad tracks, the train crew was able to safely stop the train before a collision occurred.

This Issue

Finding Solutions

Newsletter cover. Image: truck and car traffic on a highway

Volume 44, Number 1
March 2008
Issue Overview

For more information:

Robert Benz
(713) 686-2971
r-benz@tamu.edu