(TNS) — Technology that alerts drivers of traffic jams, approaching ambulances or people crossing the street will become more accessible in Pinellas County, Fla., thanks to a federal grant.
The Federal Highway Administration awarded the county $4.6 million for its Pinellas Connected Community project. The money will help the county integrate data from multiple providers and use technology to predict accidents and traffic delays.
It’s all part of a larger trend to use technology to make roadways safer.
Connected-vehicle technology, which has been used throughout Tampa Bay and the country for years, allows vehicles to “talk to each other” and recognize hazards before drivers do. Related technology upgrades allow people to drive down busy corridors without hitting a red light, thanks to traffic-light synchronization, or will notify a driver about a pedestrian or cyclist in a crosswalk. Pinellas is using the grant money to expand its smart city data platform, where it can track information from third parties, including private companies like Waze, street and intersection cameras, and data from connected vehicles.
“We can funnel that into a database where it can be shared with everybody, but also utilized to better operate the roadway,” said Ken Jacobs, Pinellas County’s transportation director. “It’s a variety of sources we can pull together to get a much better idea of what the network looks like and where the traffic is.”
The county is also expanding a pilot program at intersections along U.S. 19. Currently 23 intersections are equipped to coordinate signal timing, gather information and provide updates to drivers as they travel down the road. The goal is to expand that to more than 100 intersections along the U.S. 19 corridor and surrounding streets, Jacobs said.
“This technology will further our efforts to make travel safer and more efficient along the corridor and to prevent accidents,” Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel said.
The signals will be able to detect when pedestrians, cyclists, cars and other vehicles are passing through an intersection, along with monitoring travel times. That information will be compiled with other data from third-parties in the main database.
“We want to distribute that information to motorists so they can make better decisions about where to drive and how to drive, and we can make better decisions about how the roadway operates.” Jacobs said. “They’re all critical components to improving safety and congestion.”
For cars that are outfitted with the right technology, drivers can get these prompts, including approaching ambulances or upcoming slow downs in traffic, directly from their vehicle.
But it will be years before that technology is found in most cars. One interim solution is to provide similar updates in an app drivers can download on their phones, Jacobs said. Drivers could still receive information from those signals and wouldn’t need additional equipment built into their cars.
Similar efforts to employ technology to improve safety and travel times have been made throughout Pinellas and the rest of Tampa Bay for years.
In 2015, the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority landed a $2.6 million grant for a connected-vehicle program. That money turned the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway into a 14-mile-long experimental lab to test next-generation driverless car technology.
Officials have been studying the data and using the lessons to get a better understanding of the benefits of the technology and where it is best deployed, said Bob Frey, director of planning and innovation for the expressway authority.
For instance, the authority has used the technology to warn 14 drivers about wrong-way entry onto expressway ramps. It’s alerted downtown streetcar operators to oncoming vehicles nine times, helping prevent crashes. And in a single month, the system notified speeding drivers in 1,280 instances to slow down when exiting the freeway into downtown.
“Connected vehicle technology allows us to get better information into the vehicles so the drivers can make better decisions,” Frey said.
The expressway authority’s initiative is data-driven and in partnership with the University of South Florida. The information gathered in the pilot, Frey said, demonstrates the purpose and value of the technology, making it easier for places like Pinellas County or the city of Tampa to apply for grants and deploy the technology on their own roads.
“The safety benefits of connected vehicles are really in allowing drivers to anticipate the unexpected,” said Johnny Wong with Hillsborough’s transportation planning organization.
Any car that has a radio, an antenna and a way to receive the messages can key into the network and make it “tremendously more safe” than it used to be, Wong said.
“This kind of technology is a game-changer,” Wong said. “I know you hear that a lot, but it really is, because it’s so simple to implement and it’s not something that costs a lot of money.”
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