New road safety technologies designed to slow drivers down and save lives could take control away from the driver.
In July 2008, Swindon became the first UK town to switch off its speed cameras. Batting off accusations of recklessness, town councillor Peter Greenhalgh declared these fixed-point speeding traps to be a ‘blatant tax on motorists’ and asserted the revenue raised from speeding fines should be spent on more effective safety measures.
Three years on, the fixed-point cameras have gone and speed-triggered traffic lights, that use road sensors to monitor car speed and turn red as a speeding driver approaches, are about to trial. “Since removing the cameras, the number of accidents and people being killed or seriously injured has reduced. That says it all,” states Greenhalgh. “I’ve seen these traffic lights working in Spain, Portugal and France, so why not here?”
Following his bold decision to ditch the speed camera, Greenhalgh was hailed ‘a motoring hero’ by BBC ‘Top Gear’ presenter, Jeremy Clarkson. The councillor, however, believes he and his office are simply looking at road safety intelligently, rather than ‘doing what everyone else does’.
“Both junctions where the lights will trial had a history of accidents. We looked at the reasons behind the accidents and [realised] that we need to change driver behaviour,” he explains. “If a driver is doing 43 or 44mph, this isn’t necessarily an issue but if he or she is approaching a junction we know is dangerous, then we need to moderate their speed. If you see a traffic light changing to red your natural instinct is to stop.”
But even before it takes off, the new scheme has critics. Director of the RAC Foundation, Professor Stephen Glaister, has publicly questioned whether the ‘odd red light’ will actually deter the behaviour of persistent offenders. Meanwhile, media coverage points to the inevitable irritation law-abiding drivers will suffer when they too get held-up at a red light.
Greenhalgh is undeterred, asserting the operation of his speed-triggered light will be ‘transparent’. “There aren’t going to be warning signs, we’re not going to tell people why the lights have turned red, and if there isn’t any traffic at other junctions, the lights will cycle quickly,” he says. “Delays will be minimal but achieve the desired effect.”
Clearly Greenhalgh’s novel approaches to speeding are not rocket science, yet neither do they penalise drivers and raise cash. Instead he hopes they will save lives. “My focus is on road safety and how do I stop people dying,” he says. “Let’s stop using penalties and look at how we can make roads safer properly, and focus on the outcomes.”
So what other roadside technologies, beyond the speed camera and speed-activated traffic light, exist to temper speedy drivers? Dr Alan Stevens, chief scientist and research director of transportation at the UK Transport Research Laboratory, TRL, points to vehicle-activated signs that display your speed and, sometimes, additional information. “I’ve seen signs that display smiley faces if you’re within the speed limit and growling faces if you’re not,” he says. “We also have the image processing to put the numberplate on a sign next to the speed. This is more threatening.”
TRL studies confirm the effectiveness of vehicle-activated signs but as Stevens highlights, drivers tend to get the slow down message quicker when their numberplate is on display. “The driver makes the connection, ‘they know it’s me and it would be easy for me to get a speeding ticket like this’,” he says.
However, it’s not all about road-side cautions; speed control is now moving from the tarmac and into your car. For starters, so-called haptics – tactile feedback technologies that apply forces or vibrations to the user and have long featured in mobile phones and computer games – are making in-roads to everyday vehicles.
Take the latest Ford Focus. In-car sensors monitor road-markings and if you inadvertently drift out of a lane, motors in your steering wheel are activated, and the wheel will vibrate. Still not responding? Then your electric-power-steering system will introduce a gentle torque to help guide you back toward the centre of the lane.
A host of ‘lane departure warning’ systems using haptic steering wheels, brake pedals or seats can already be found in Mercedes, BMW, Citroen and Fiat, to name but a few. But as Stevens points out, haptics are fast moving into other vehicle components, to slow drivers down.
For example, Honda’s ‘collision mitigation brake system’, uses haptic seatbelts. Obstacles are detected, via cameras and radar, some 100m ahead of the vehicle and if a collision is likely, the driver will feel three sharp tugs on his or her seatbelt and the car automatically starts to apply some braking. If a collision is unavoidable, the system tightens the front seat occupants’ seatbelts and applies a high level of braking force, which can be supplemented by the driver.
“We’ve also looked into a haptic throttle,” adds Stevens. “If you exceed a speed, your accelerator pedal pushes back on you. You can push down and go faster but it is reminding you that this is the speed to keep you within the speed limit.”
Instrumental haptic technology
While these haptic technologies are not new, they are not widely available either, yet. On unveiling his 2011-2020 road safety plan last year, European Commission vice-president responsible for Transport Siim Kallas, said: “A hundred people die everyday on Europe’s roads... the number of fatalities and injuries is unacceptable. We are looking at what cars motorists drive, where they drive and how they drive and we want to cut road deaths in half by 2020.”
Under EU plans, ‘active safety’ devices, including those that use haptic technologies, are considered instrumental to increasing safety in commercial vehicles. And, inevitably, the Commission is looking at measures to increase the use of these technologies in private passenger vehicles.
‘Intelligent Speed Adaptation’ (ISA), a general term for computer systems that serve to limit the speed of a vehicle, is another favourite. The system uses an in-vehicle digital roadmap, onto which the speed limits of every single road in, say, the UK would be coded, combined with a positioning system, most likely satellite Global Positioning System, to pinpoint the vehicle’s location.
If the system detects that the car has exceeded a speed limit, three actions can be taken depending on whether the system is advisory, voluntary or mandatory. The advisory system simply advises the driver, either visually, audibly or both, of excessive speed while the voluntary version is linked to the vehicle controls and will automatically slow the vehicle down. In each case, the driver can switch the system off. The mandatory system is also linked to the vehicle controls, but importantly, no system override is possible.
Like haptics, ISA isn’t new. Academics at UK-based Leeds University and the Motor Industry Research Association started investigating the technology in 2001 and two years ago, Transport for London ran trials of a voluntary system in a fleet of cars, buses and black cabs with positive results. Indeed, a beta advisory ISA system is now available for public download on the TfL website.
ISA pioneer and director of the Institute of Transport Safety at the University of Leeds, Professor Oliver Carsten, believes ISA has clear benefits to road safety. “ISA is the most powerful potential safety system around,” he says. “It could prevent up to one-third of injury accidents and about half of today’s road fatalities. That’s much more of a benefit in proportional terms than we got from compulsory seat belt wearing.”
Carsten’s trials indicate that when using the voluntary system, drivers were much more speed compliant and able to pay better attention to the road. In contrast, evidence to date suggests the advisory system, while effective, has much smaller benefits. His research has also shown that compared to other in-car safety technologies such as collision-warning and electronic stability control, ISA brings more benefits to all types of road and saves more lives.
“In terms of severe crashes, collision warning is very relevant to motorway > < driving, but these roads are already relatively safe,” he explains. “Also, electronic stability control brings most benefits to lower friction roads and regions with snow, such as Sweden.”
UK roadmap of speed limits
But if the tried and tested ISA system works so well – it has been under consideration for the best part of a decade – why aren’t we seeing more of it in today’s vehicles? Well, have you ever tried getting an up-to-date, accurate digital roadmap that contains all the speed limits?
As TRL’s Stevens says: “Countries such as The Netherlands and Finland have published all their road data and have a centrally-governed system for updating speed information. The UK doesn’t have this yet.”
And according to Carsten: “Having an accurate digital UK roadmap with speed limits is relatively easy to organise, update and not very expensive – tens of millions of pounds – which is pretty much peanuts in terms of public expenditure. But it does take somebody to take the lead.”
The academic states the Transport Select committee of the House of Commons recommended the government did just this in 2002, but nine years on only London, Lancashire and parts of Greater Manchester have the digital maps in place. “At this rate it will be 2040 once we’ve got the whole country done, which is ridiculous,” he jokes.
Ridiculous or not, a 30-year time-line would keep ISA sceptics very happy. Many cite the technology as yet more evidence of state interference while spokesmen from both the AA and Association of British Drivers have publicly voiced concerns over public acceptance and asked if the system will ‘stop drivers thinking’?
For his part, Carsten maintains complacency isn’t a problem – the system doesn’t do anything unless you are speeding – and is confident the technology will soon penetrate fleet markets, which have a “duty to promote health and safety”. However, he concedes wide-scale adoption of a mandatory system is problematic, as “drivers still think they need to be able to speed to over-take”.
Mandatory road safety
Likewise, Stevens believes a lack of public acceptance will stop a mandatory version being aired for many years yet, even though models indicate this would have the largest impact on reducing accidents.
“The advisory system still has a good effect on accident levels though,” he adds. “If we can just keep people to speed limits we are less likely to have accidents and the ones that we have will have less energy involved.”
And this is surely what road safety is about. From word go, Swindon’s Peter Greenhalgh says he replaced speed cameras with speed-triggered traffic lights, to “stop people dying”. Unlike Carsten and Stevens, however, the town councillor probably won’t want to trial ISA anytime soon.
“[ISA] is absolutely ridiculous... it gives people a false sense of security, they are thinking about themselves and not the wider impact of their behaviour,” he concludes. “Instead of cocooning people we need an element of self-determination. I jokingly say the safest car around would be the one with a big spike in the middle of a steering wheel. My God, wouldn’t that concentrate you?” *