Automotive > Infotainment & Telematics Blog

Turn Off the Red-Light ... Cameras - Safer Intersections are within Reach

by Roger Lanctot | 2月 03, 2013

“Gentlemen… We have the technology…” paraphrasing Richard Anderson in character as Oscar Goldman in the opening sequence of “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

In the U.S., three times as many people are killed in accidents that occur at intersections than are killed as a result of distracted driving. The technological remedies for this highway holocaust exist, but traffic authorities continue to be distracted by short-term fixes of dubious efficacy (red-light cameras) and daunting budget barriers.

This issue has particular resonance now that U.S. Dept. of Transportation Director Ray LaHood has announced his departure.  A new director will be resetting the agenda of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and intersection accidents ought to be high on the priority list. 

The issue of intersection safety has implications for fuel efficient driving and the coordination of urban traffic grids.  Some of the key applications for NHTSA’s proposed vehicle-to-infrastructure communication (using dedicated short-range communications – DSRC – technology) are built around the timing of traffic lights to ensure the smooth movement of traffic, the reduction of congestion and emissions, and the prevention of accidents.

Two innovative solutions (and a Federal study), take quite different approaches to meeting these challenges and highlight the use of smartphones and existing wireless technology, while also raising questions about the ability to transition the current fragmented traffic light infrastructure in the U.S. and elsewhere to DSRC technology.  (A more detailed discussion of this issue is available to Strategy Analytics clients at: - Vehicle Safety at the Crossroads – Literally.) 

The two solutions come from Global Mobile Alert and Green Driver.  The Federal study is being conducted by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). 

Global Mobile Alert has patented ( the use of either an on-board or off-board map accessed by a mobile phone to alert drivers who are using the phone to hazardous conditions ahead including intersections, railroad crossings and school zones.  Alerts and messages to the driver can be tailored to the nature of the hazard. 

Global Mobile Alert has further patented the use of wireless communication between the traffic light and a mobile device to determine the phase of the light in relation to the speed of the car in order to alert the driver, particularly in the event of the mobile phone being in use.  Global Mobile Alert executives envision a variety of scenarios and applications of this patent - but – the fundamental functionality revolves around cellular communication and location technology.

Green Driver, on the other hand, taps into an Internet feed from local municipalities to access signal light timing data which can be fed to smartphones for the purpose of enabling more fuel efficient driving by letting drivers avoid red lights.  But the Green Driver approach can also alert users to red-light runners, as long as those drivers have the app downloaded to an operating phone. 

Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in the U.S. is in the midst of a two-year project to reduce traffic delays by enabling communication between vehicles and traffic lights.  (BMW is a sponsor of the research along with two universities.)  The FHWA estimates that “poor traffic signal timing accounts for 10 percent of all traffic delays – about 300M vehicle-hours – on major roadways alone.”

The FHWA’s objective is to use probe data associated with the deployment of vehicle-to-infrastructure communication to achieve a transformational change in how traffic is controlled.  To quote the study abstract: 

“This part of the study looks at the development of algorithm sequences for a connected vehicle to inform only relevant traffic signals about the vehicle’s proximity, velocity and signal request.  Information is sent from a traffic signal to a cloud-based data center, and then communicated over a 3G/4G network to in-car applications.

“With this data, the car is able to display signal phase and timing (SPAT) information to a driver and, if required, adapt the cruise control in real-time, according to the vehicle trajectory, to get through a signal corridor without stopping.  The technology, called ‘smart cruising’ also allows a driver to choose between reduced travel time or increased fuel efficiency.  Using ‘motor stops automatically’ technology, the vehicle can drive while the engine is switched off, effectively sailing along a corridor.” 

The FHWA’s use of the 3G/4G cellular network for its study reflects the fact that the only intersections equipped, today, with DSRC transponders are associated with a handful of pilots, such as the UMTRI V2I pilot in Michigan.  Global Mobile Alert takes the map-as-a-sensor approach to alerting drivers to intersections, but has also provided for RF communication between the car and infrastructure to support intersection alerts to drivers via the smartphone.

Green Driver’s work in connecting with the IP-based SPAT information of local municipalities (the company is currently operating in Eugene and Portland, Oregon; across the entire state of Utah; in the Dallas suburb of Garland; and in San Jose), has revealed a significant degree of fragmentation in traffic light systems and infrastructure around the U.S.  Some cities are online and able to “play ball” with Green Driver – sharing their SPAT info.  Other cities are able to share, but decline to do so.  Still other cities simply do not have the capability due to the limitations of the back-end systems or the physical roadside infrastructure. 

All three approaches – each targeted at different problems – are built around existing wireless technology.  Both Global Mobile Alert and Green Driver are essentially using the map as a sensor.  Green Driver obtains the SPAT data via the Internet while GMA proposes the use of cellular communication from the traffic light to obtain the timing info.

The new leadership at NHTSA has an opportunity to prioritize the reduction of intersection crashes and fatalities around a market-based approach based on existing technology.  Smartphones, map data, the cellular network and Internet connectivity ought to be leveraged to put into the dashboards of drivers the traffic light location and phase status necessary to improve the efficient management of traffic, reduce congestion and polluting emissions, and prevent fatal accidents. 

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) continues to advocate for the efficacy of red light cameras to reduce red-light running and related accidents citing its latest research on installations in Virginia.  Not only do the IIHS findings conflict with more rigorous studies conducted by traffic authorities and universities everywhere from California and New Mexico to Virginia and New Jersey, it is by now clear that red-light cameras are nothing more than a revenue producing distraction and an invasion of privacy.

Red-light cameras do not even put additional officers on the street better able to focus on more important law enforcement matters.  In most deployments, officers must review and approve the citations – shifting the burden rather than conserving resources. 

We, indeed, have the technology to save lives, reduce congestion and emissions, and enable the safe, smooth flow of traffic through intersections.  And the best news of all, we can achieve all these objectives with market-oriented implementations of existing technology. 

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