Driving a Sea of Change on the Nation's Roadways

Nation's Cities Weekly, March 8, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Driving a Sea of Change on the Nation's Roadways


Imagine a freeway full with bumper-to-bumper automobiles equipped with and controlled by computers that move your car and others along at the speed limit, while you read the newspaper, return phone calls, do some paper work, or perhaps, catch a few winks.

There's a hidden control center, which has automatically plotted your course--the best routes to avoid traffic gridlock, accidents, road maintenance work, and the like. Some time ago, that might have been an incredible scene out of a sci-fi movie, but not so today. While we're not quite there yet, today, with a variety of fast-emerging Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), we can conceivably reach our destinations faster, safer, and with less stress.

The U.S. Department of Transportation defines Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) as "the integration of current and emerging technologies in fields such as information processing, communications, and electronics applied to solving surface transportation problems."

In the early 1990s, when the federal officials and highway administrators first conceived of ITS (formerly IVHS or Intelligent Vehicle-Highway Systems), they probably mused about a communications system that would allow completely hands-free driving. The driver would take control only when absolutely necessary. But IVHS was soon changed to ITS, reflecting a more expedient approach to the future of transportation.

Simply put, it wasn't practical to tear up the nation's highway system and replace it with a one-size-fits-all automated network that would be compatible with millions of vehicles. While that may be a reality in the not-too-distant future, as cars and roads are gradually made "smarter," today's ITS approach is to solve some of our surface transportation problems with a variety of simpler, more cost-effective technologies.

Today, more and more, we see how Intelligent Transportation Systems are moving the nation and solving a number of transportation problems, the most important of which is safety. More than 41,000 people are killed on our nation's roads each year. And while the number of traffic fatalities has dropped significantly over the past decade, new safety solutions will be necessary to keep up the decline.

Traffic congestion ranks high--with crime, drugs, and finances--among the worst problems faced by people in metropolitan areas.

In a recent survey, NLC's 15th Annual Opinion Survey of Municipal Elected Officials, 66 percent of respondents indicated that recent patterns of regional growth and development have had negative effects on traffic congestion in their cities. And 83 percent indicated the need to address mass public transportation problems over the next two years.

Compared to 30 years ago, today there are nearly four times as many vehicles traveling a combined 2 trillion miles a year on the nation's streets and highways. Vehicle speeds in urban areas can average as little as 8 mph during rush hours--delays estimated to cost $120 billion annually.

But traffic tie-ups are being eased by ITS, and with the rapid development of technologies, in the near future, ITS could save nearly 3,500 lives and prevent 400,000 injuries a year.

ITS technologies will warn drivers when they are about to run off the road or are too close to a car in front of them, and will automatically apply the brakes or adjust speed to avoid a collision. In addition, safety will be improved as vehicles travel at more uniform speeds.

Trucks and other commercial vehicles will be equipped with on-board devices and systems that automatically test a driver's vision and motor skills, warn when other vehicles are in the driver's blind spot, and provide other safety features.

From an economic point of view, ITS will create jobs, boost productivity, and lower the cost of goods. Transportation spending makes up about 20 percent of the nation's economy. Almost $600 billion is spent annually for people's transportation needs and more than $300 billion is spent for transporting goods.

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