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Intersection safety
and the technology
that will bring it
to your town

Author: Mike Elgan

Traffic intersections are often dangerous. In looking at intersection safety, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration determined that more than 50% of injurious and fatal crashes occur at or near an intersection.

In some ways, the heightened risk is inevitable. Traffic moves against and across itself, instead of in one direction, and pedestrian safety often relies on the ability and willingness of people in the intersection to understand and abide by traffic patterns and rules. A decision as seemingly minor as taking a right turn on red could endanger pedestrians who have the right of way. A cyclist who ignores a yellow light might force a driver with the right of way to veer into another lane.

Technology has yet to solve the problem—and might have even created new ones. The explosion in the use of electric bikes, scooters and skateboards added more fast-moving, poorly protected people to the intersection mishmash. People driving or even walking while looking at phones pose a risk to themselves and others. Even using a GPS can be a distraction that leads to an accident.

Researchers and city planners have been trying to make intersections safer for decades. With the emergence of technology like smart traffic lights and an intelligent pedestrian crossing system, there might finally be a way.

Smart street and traffic lights

Improving safety in intersections means learning more about what's happening in them.

Sensors—whether housed in standard cameras, thermal cameras, night vision cameras, lidar or elsewhere—can gather data about everything that moves toward and through an intersection. Smart software can analyze all this in real time to predict the behavior of each moving piece and intervene when necessary. For example, traffic light timing can be set to dynamically respond to real-time traffic patterns to help prevent accidents.

Artificially intelligent cameras can also help enable smarter safety. Researchers from the University of Melbourne partnered with global public transport company Cubic Transportation Systems to measure how AI, when combined with real-time tracking, can improve intersection safety, Smart Cities World reports. Their tech solution, Gridsmart, identifies different types of traffic in an intersection and learns their behavior to optimize and protect everyone on or near the road.

Smart traffic lights can detect when an oncoming car is moving too fast to safely stop when the light turns yellow. By delaying the change to red lights by a second or two, they can let vehicles clear the intersection and prevent collisions.

Impatient or unaware pedestrians have long posed a threat to themselves and drivers. An intelligent pedestrian crossing system could change that. Instead of relying on a button to alert the traffic signal that pedestrians are waiting to cross, a smart system, Digital Trends notes, uses a camera to detect when a person is ready to cross. The camera can also identify if a group is larger or moving slowly and extend the crossing time so that drivers don't miss a green light and cause further backups. And in an era of heightened sensitivity to contact and cleanliness, a touch-free intersection is safer for everyone.

Planning ahead

Data collection by smart devices supports long-term solutions, too. Cities can use smart street lights to save money while also leveraging the technology to gather data and facilitate urban planning. Sensors in the smart lights can collect anonymous information on parking availability, bicycle counts, pedestrian traffic, temperatures and more. By making that data available to application developers, cities can help optimize its transportation planning, emergency response and pedestrian safety services.

The intersection is often where these considerations come together—each initiative is only as good as its ability to function when another breaks down. Sensors that can collect and analyze a wide variety of data ensure a complete approach to intersection safety.

On the road

Fully autonomous personal vehicles will someday be able to communicate with each other and with smart street and light infrastructure. We aren't quite there yet, but human-operated cars are getting smarter and better connected all the time.

Preventive safety measures are a good place to start, but they can't eliminate the possibility of an accident. In an emergency, first responders must gain quick access to the scene. As any driver knows, the intersection is often an obstacle to an efficient route, but smart technology has an answer.

GPS tech in fire trucks and emergency medical vehicles can alert smart traffic lights of an emergency response in progress, stopping or redirecting traffic flow to let first responders move through intersections without navigating through blockages. Officials in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, have installed this technology in 25 of the city's busiest intersections, according to local news station WMBF-TV.

Over time, personal vehicles could be equipped with technology that gives car and driver actionable information about what's happening at the intersection ahead. We can even look forward to 3D-mapped imagery that collects information about curved roads, traffic laws, lane changes and more to provide drivers with a model that makes driving safer, particularly in unfamiliar areas, Engadget reports.

Intersection safety and privacy

The implementation of intersection safety technology isn't always easy. Connected cameras raise privacy concerns, and even standard emerging tech like 5G and AI can spark concerns about encroaching authoritarianism. People already associate cameras mounted to traffic lights, street lights and road signs with speed traps and automated toll-road fare collection; public resistance to the implementation of advanced intersection safety technology is to be expected. Civic groups have been formed to oppose smart street light or smart traffic light projects in cities where they've been proposed or implemented, according to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Different departments will likely have opposing objectives, too. Transportation officials might want more comprehensive traffic data to optimize bus routes; public safety officials might prioritize a crime-prevention surveillance network. Other potential challenges include the hosting and storage of massive data pools, security and encryption, interoperability and the management of emerging standards, not to mention concerns about funding sources and business models. Municipalities looking to deploy smart technology for intersection safety will need robust networks with low latency and high bandwidth to ensure that real-time data processing is possible.

City officials might find it easier to work with managed services partners with experience in all these areas than to strike out on their own.

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