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Roadside Transponders Let Government 'Chat' with Mobile Devices While Citizens Drive

The Florida DOT has used data collected via the transponders in studies looking to relieve overburdened corridors, such as the ongoing efforts to relieve congestion on I-75 through the Gainesville-Ocala region.

(TNS) — Motorists cruising along Florida's Interstate 75 or through some major local intersections likely assume they are being watched by overhead traffic cameras.

They may not know the government is also looking inside their vehicles and reading information on their cell phones, tablets, headphones — anything with Bluetooth.

The Florida Department of Transportation and city of Gainesville are two of many government entities nationwide now using roadside transponders to read the identification number of any activated Bluetooth device as it passes.

The collected ID numbers can be used in a number of ways, including determining traffic patterns, traffic flow in intersections and on arterial roadways and speed. If a car suddenly drops its speed, for example, it may indicate an accident.

FDOT has been using the data in studies looking to relieve overburdened corridors, such as the ongoing efforts to relieve congestion on I-75 through the Gainesville-Ocala region.

The city of Gainesville, meanwhile, uses it to adjust traffic signals to prevent backups.

“The whole country is doing this,” said Paul Misticawi, vice president of public sector sales for TrafficCast, a traffic data software company that provides transponder devices to 45 states, including Florida.

Bluetooth is a way of leaving wires and cables behind and instead transferring data using radio transmission. It is a common feature in virtually all communication devices today, including being installed in many new cars.

For those who might be wary of the prying eyes of government invading their privacy, Misticawi says in no way can anyone track the data back to its source.

“It’s completely anonymous,” he said of the information collected. “The data is encrypted so there’s no ‘Big Brother’ issue at all.”

According to Jennifer Fortunas, with FDOT’s Systems Planning Office, while the transponders can read each device’s unique identification number, there’s no way to find out more about the device’s owner or the vehicle they are driving because more information would be needed.

Fortunas said the technology has been around for about six or seven years. She said FDOT uses this type of sampling for specific projects but doesn’t keep the devices on the roads all the time.

FDOT contracts with a company that temporarily installs the transponders than record a sampling of the Bluetooth devices.

Fortunas said the transponders are a big improvement over the old days. In the 1970s and 1980s, in order to collect travel data transportation, officials used to wait at roadside rest stops and ask motorists a series of questions about their journey.

In the early 1990s, efforts shifted to conducting household surveys on trip patterns. But these methods limited the sample size.

Sometimes government researchers will use counters encased in rubber tubes stretched across roads to measure traffic volume.

But the Bluetooth method collects the ID's at different points along a roadway, allowing officials to see not only how many motorists are using the road but also roughly where each one is coming from and going to.

“It just gives you a snapshot so that you can make some inferences,” Fortunas said, adding the data can be used to understand trip patterns.

This time last year, FDOT started looking for information on the number of people using I-75 in north Florida. The information has played a role in task force meetings to determine the best way to ease traffic on the interstate, including proposals for new highways through Alachua or Marion counties.

From July 23-29, the agency installed 21 transponders along the interstate and adjoining roads from Suwannee County south to Hillsborough County to collect traffic-pattern data. Two of the devices were placed on I-75 in Alachua County, one just north of the Newberry Road exit and another just north of the U.S. 441 exit.

Results showed of those headed south on the highway in north Florida, about half peel off on Interstate 10, Gainesville or Ocala.

Of the remaining drivers, about half head east to Orlando on Florida’s Turnpike and the rest continue south toward Tampa.

Alachua County hasn’t begun to use Bluetooth technology to collect transit data, but officials are aware of the potential.

Jeff Hayes, Alachua County’s transportation planning manager, said the system is smart enough that if two people with Bluetooth devices are traveling in the same car, they will be recorded together at the first transponder. But if both devices cross the path of a transponder down the road again in the same car, the system figures out they belong to passengers traveling together, and will cancel out one of the ID numbers.

Gainesville has been using devices from TrafficCast at some major intersections for about two years.

Chip Skinner, spokesman for Gainesville’s Public Works Department, said devices are installed at the intersections on 34th Street at Archer Road and University Avenue.

These help staff monitor how long it takes motorists to get from point A to point B and adjust the timing of traffic signals to keep traffic flowing. They’ve also used Bluetooth to collect data for road construction projects, he said.

Misticawi says transponders can be installed permanently — like the city has done — or temporarily, like FDOT did in July 2015.

“Most are permanent because they are monitoring all the time,” he said.

Misticawi said it’s common to permanently install the devices at intersections because they can tap into the infrastructure already in place to power the devices.

Governments use the collected data to decide how good or bad an arterial road is working and make adjustments based on the feedback.

“The ones that are using it are the ones more actively trying to make their corridors more efficient,” he said.

©2016 The Gainesville Sun, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.