High-tech highways

September 16, 1992

By the end of this decade, traffic engineers envision highway where your --board computer lets you know instantly of accidents, lengthy backups and the best alternate routes. Sound like wishful science fiction? Not judging from steps taken recently in Maryland and New York to bring high-technology applications to roadways.

Last month, Maryland officials approved a $2 million plan for a traffic management center near BWI Airport that will monitor cameras along highways and sensors implanted in the roadbeds to spot accidents, vehicle breakdowns and heavy traffic. Officials then will alert drivers via electronic message signs, traveler's advisory radio and radio traffic reports. The center will also adjust traffic signals on alternate routes to avoid new tie-ups.

Within a few years, major Maryland highways will have monitoring devices. This will enable the state to react immediately to an accident, sending in rescue and towing equipment much more rapidly. Meanwhile, drivers can be alerted to the dangers and delays that should be avoided.

It won't be too long after this system is set up that officials will have the technical capability to send highway messages directly to --board computers. Finding the least congested and accident-free travel route could be as easy as turning on the computer monitor.

Heavily traveled urban roads also are prime high-tech targets. In New York City, a $100 million traffic-tracking network is being installed. It will use 1,100 electromagnetic sensors embedded in Manhattan roadways to transmit data on vehicle volume and speed to a central computer. Along with an array of cameras near busy intersections, city officials hope to better cope with the 883,000 cars and trucks that enter Manhattan every day.

That same kind of system has worked well in downtown Los Angeles and in Tokyo. Sensors are also in use along the New Jersey Turnpike and the Long Island Expressway.

Is this high-tech gadgetry worth it? Or is this another example of a government boondoggle? One institute that studied traffic congestion in major cities estimated New York loses $7 billion a year due to traffic delays that heighten pollution, slow the transporting of goods and create accidents and higher auto insurance. Gridlock also impinges on the quality of life for millions of Americans. If these undertakings make driving more pleasurable, quicker and less dangerous, these government ventures into high-tech will be well worth the money.

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