Thursday, December 07, 2006

Visions for Applications of Geographic Information Systems

If you are interested in some comments on a vision for the future of Geographic Information Systems, for video, try: http://www.indiana.edu/~gis/ford_ipod.mp4
for audio only: http://www.indiana.edu/~gis/ford_audio.m4a

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Handling Traffic Emergencies

Handling Traffic Emergencies

For 18 years, I have driven to Indianapolis on a nearly daily basis, usually following I-69 to I-465. On Tuesday morning, December 5, there was another of the common accidents that closed the road southbound near Anderson. As I understand it, the highway was closed from about 7:15 a.m., when the accident occurred, until it was finally cleared, about noon. I came upon the stopped traffic just past mile marker 26 and it took over an hour to make it four miles to the Pendleton exit, where the traffic was being routed off.

I understand that accidents are a common and (at least for now) unavoidable consequence of traffic on our highways. At the same time, I wonder why they should result in such dramatic traffic delays when they are totally predictable.

If it were just for the frustration of losing an hour (although I have been in similar congestion that lasted more than 4 hours) I would just count myself lucky that I wasn’t involved in the accident and have sympathy for those who were. As a former law enforcement officer, I also know that there is more to do than just take care of the injured and clean up the mess. There is often an investigation that must be at least partially completed before the scene can be cleared. All of that, however, should still not result in the long delays that always seem to result.

Every driver, trucker, and passenger that came along that highway – thousands of them – lost more than an hour that morning. People missed jobs, appointments, and maybe flight connections. Some goods didn’t get to their destination on time – an important issue for factories and for connecting transportation awaiting shipping or trucks. Thousands of extra gallons of fuel were burned. Without trying to calculate a number, it’s easy to guess that millions of dollars were lost to the Indiana economy. And in spite of the accident, it appears to me that much of the delay didn’t need to happen.

Those of us in the public sector are not doing enough to plan for this kind of event. In this case, the big bottleneck was at the Pendleton exit. There was no one directing traffic there and so every vehicle had to wait needlessly at the light. There was also no additional traffic control in Pendleton, where the traffic was snarling as it tried to get through town. There were no signs at exits or on-ramps north of the accident that could have redirected traffic, even though the accident was hours old by the time I arrived. State highway trucks were used to funnel the traffic off of the interstate and to block any vehicles from making U-turns, but there was no warning that the traffic was being routed off until the driver was close enough to see the exit (not far if you are following a semi). That meant that many of the drivers were scrambling for maps as they approached the exit. I tried listening to the INDOT radio frequency (530 AM). It was inaudible but, from the few words I could hear, it wasn’t mentioning the road closure at all.

It was obvious to me, as I waited, that this is not the kind of situation that we would like to have happen on a large scale in the event of a major public emergency. If we can’t manage traffic after a single and predictable highway accident, what would happen in the event of a large disaster?

My purpose here isn’t to whine about the inconvenience. My purpose is to suggest a different approach. In an age of heightened concern about homeland security, shouldn’t we have public plans that deal with the details so that, should a larger crisis ever arise, we could respond with some sense of composure and order?

Here are my suggestions.

First, INDOT and the Department of Homeland Security should have a plan that thoroughly addresses any blockage of any section of Interstate Highway. Where will the traffic be rerouted? Who is responsible for the choke points along the detour(s)? How do we re-regulate the traffic control devices along the detours for the heavier traffic? Which highway or street departments and which law enforcement agencies should be notified and what are their responsibilities?

Second, isn’t there a better way to warn and reroute traffic before it gets into the bottleneck? How about portable signs at preceding on-ramps and off-ramps that could be quickly placed by public safety to help vehicles avoid the congestion? That would, in turn, mean less congestion and delay for those who hadn’t been able to avoid it.

Third, we need information delivered quickly to the motorists. INDOT already has the radio frequency. A few portable signs asking motorists to tune in coupled with a temporary transmitter could give information on alternative routes, expected delay time, emergency phone numbers, and other important information.

I’m sure our Homeland Security folks and Transportation officials could come up with some other useful ideas to incorporate into an overall plan. Executing those plans when the need arose would not only save a lot of time and money for Hoosier motorists but would serve as great practice for larger emergencies. The problem is too common and too costly not to address. We need some solutions and we need to put them into practice.