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Can intelligent transport solutions save lives?

By admin - Last updated: Wednesday, April 6, 2011

According to a recent article published by Autoblog, nearly all of us are either safer than, or as safe as, the average driver.  In other words, it must be all the ‘others’ out there who cause the accidents.  However, whichever way you cut it, there are still way too many automobile accidents each year.  Wiki estimates that in 2004 some 1.2 million people were killed and a further 50 million injured in motor vehicle collisions worldwide. I have a suspicion that in the last 5 years, sadly, these numbers have only increased.

Innovative technology clearly has a role to play here in creating better transport solutions.

A few years ago we worked as part of a much large consortium on what became know as ‘Hard Shoulder Running’ or to give it its proper title the ‘M42 Active Traffic Management’ Project.  For non UK residents, the M42 is a stretch of motorway (freeway) that circumnavigates Birmingham, one of the countries largest cities, and was notorious for its congestion.  In September 2006, the M42 Active Traffic Management pilot introduced controlled use of the hard shoulder to the UK motorway for the first time, with the aim of easing traffic congestion by opening up the safety lane to all vehicles. As well as incorporating the ability to open this ‘fourth lane’, the new system included variable mandatory speed limits (4L-VMSL).   Naturally, a concern – vocalized in the press at the time – was what would happen if there was a vehicle stopped on the hard shoulder when the hard shoulder opens – and the measures that could be taken to assess and mitigate risk? Whilst the need to ease congestion was key, it would also have been seen as unacceptable to increase the risk of injury or death to the traveling public.

As a leading technology and innovation development company, our role in this project was to devise appropriate transport risk assessment methodologies, carry out risk assessments and develop the hazard log tool, drawing on experience of developing safety-critical systems in the rail, defence and healthcare industries.

We now have three years worth of data on the project and the results published by Mott MacDonald make for stunning reading.  The press release summarizing key points can be found here, however to summarise, the project has not only eased congestion, but it has also significantly reduced the number of accidents and fatalities on this stretch of road. During the first 36 months of the new regime, the number of personal injuries on the road dropped from 183 to just 81 over a similar timeframe.  What’s even more stunning is the fact that there has been a reduction in the severity of accidents when 4L-VMSL has been operating, meaning that vehicle occupants were more likely to only be slightly injured rather that fatally or seriously injured.  Technology clearly has a vital role to play in making travel safer.

If you are interested in ways of reducing congestion through the use of technology, you might also be interested in this article by Cambridge Consultant’sDirector of Transport, Dr Liz Orme.  Liz runs a transport technology group that focuses on the development of applications, specialising in intelligent transport systems that function at the interface between technology and operations.

The M42 example above could be summarised as how can we (safely) ease congestion by getting more cars through on the existing infrastructure.  However, if we take the bird’s eye view, this problem is not dissimilar to one we get frequently asked to solve by lots of clients, irrespective of whether they are in transport, healthcare or defence and security;   “How do I get more from what I’ve got?”  A current example in  a different industry would be the issue  of ‘broadband crunch’ that faces the mobile operators since the recent explosion of smart phone users, and the technology focus that is now being brought to solve this problem through the use of technologies such as cognitive radio in the whitespace domain.  (You can read our recent report into whitespace, published by our wireless product development team, here)

Finally, it would be inappropriate to finish this blog without mentioning the other parties that worked together in the consortia to maker the M42 project a success and reality. We were pleased to work in close collaboration with the Highways Agency, Mouchel Ltd and Arthur D Little. Valuable contributions were made by other members of the consortium including IPL, CCD and TRL, to name but some.


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