Traffic cameras focus on preventing gridlock

August 23, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland's war on highway congestion is about to go high tech with cameras and radar keeping vigil on the worst battlegrounds.

A multimillion-dollar venture under way by the State Highway Administration will feature 22 video cameras focused on the Baltimore- Washington area's busiest interchanges. Add to that the 154 low-power radar units that will allow a computer to track how fast vehicles are moving along 115 miles of highways. The equipment isn't intended to enforce laws or ticket speeders, but to lay waste to a craftier enemy: urban gridlock.

That doesn't mean the new system won't slow drivers down. As a side-effect, the radar units will likely trip radar detectors. With 115 miles of highways covered, that could drive their owners daffy.

When completed next spring, the cameras and radar will be integrated in an ambitious 24-hour-a-day communications network officials believe is their best hope to keep pace with the state's growing volumes of traffic.

"When our highway system breaks down, it can do so quickly and severely -- the beltways are the best example of that," said Hal Kassoff, the SHA's administrator.

"When traffic was lighter we had a lot more cushion. It could take a shot and recover. That's not true anymore."

The $6 million project is one of numerous traffic management systems sprouting up across the country as urban areas address the onslaught of cars and commuters without expanding highways or building new ones.

The traditional build-your-way-out approach is costly -- in dollars and environmental impact -- and politically traumatic when acquiring the needed land means bulldozing existing neighborhoods.

The new philosophy is far cheaper and less disruptive: Use existing roads more efficiently by letting drivers know how best to avoid traffic jams.

That's nothing new. Radio and television traffic reporters have been doing that for years, alerting drivers to major trouble spots as reported by police, highway crews and airborne spotters. In the mid-1980s, the SHA got involved when Gov. William Donald Schaefer pushed to find ways to speed summer traffic to Ocean City.

Biggest problem

But the biggest problem they all face is time -- and the constantly shifting nature of traffic. On busy thoroughfares, an accident can cause a backup in seconds, but it can take many minutes to be discovered.

The SHA is betting that cameras and radar will perform much faster. For a decade, the agency has successfully maintained video cameras at the Beltway exchanges with I-95 and I-70, but their usefulness has been limited. They produce only grainy still pictures that have to be monitored by an operator.

"The closed-circuit television has proven to be one of the most useful tools for traffic management," said James R. Robinson, a traffic engineer with the Federal Highway Administration which has financed the SHA program. "They have become increasingly common across the country."

The radar sensors are a much newer idea. Mounted 1 1/2 miles apart on the undersides of bridges and traffic signs, the 10-inch boxes will bounce a wide microwave beam on the highway.

The units will measure only average speeds across several lanes. Its low-power signal is similar to what is used on a supermarket's automatic doors. They can't target specific vehicles, and will neither help nor hinder police radar enforcement.

Giffen Nickol, spokesman for the Maryland chapter of the National Motorists Association, said the fact that the unit's signal will trip radar detectors will bring no joy to his membership.

"It seems kind of childish if they think they're getting something by bugging motorists," Mr. Nickol said. "There's no data that suggests motorists who use radar detectors are any more dangerous than other drivers."

How it works

Ultimately, the video images and sensor results will be relayed to a central control room near Baltimore-Washington International Airport and regional centers in Golden Ring and College Park. A computer will process the input and figure out where traffic is tying itself in knots.

"The computers will judge speed and assume a threshold of a problem -- if traffic slows to this speed, something's going on," said Stephen Kuciemba, the SHA engineer who is developing the system. "When the computer finds a problem, we know to turn the corresponding camera on -- or dispatch someone to check things out."

The computer will generate a regional map with different colors representing the different traffic speeds. In turn, the information can be used to dispatch aid, update media traffic reports, program new messages on electronic signs or on the two dozen low-power radio stations broadcasting traffic advisories on 530 and 1610 AM scattered around the state.

Similar systems have been successful elsewhere. Chicago has had traffic detectors embedded in its major highways for years. Montgomery County uses traffic cameras as does Northern Virginia. So do Los Angelos, Toronto and Minneapolis, among others.

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