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Real-Time Incident Data Could Change Road Safety Forever

Research by Michigan State University and Ford Mobility examined connected vehicle data to gain insights into driving styles and incidents, potentially allowing for safety problems to be addressed before a crash occurs.

DOT connected vehicles 3
Research by Michigan State University and Ford Mobility examined connected vehicle data to gain insights into numerous driving styles and incidents.
U.S. Department of Transportation
Data collected from connected vehicles can offer near real-time insights into highway safety problem areas, identifying near-misses, troublesome intersections and other roadway dangers.

New research from Michigan State University and Ford Mobility, which tracked driving incidents on Ford vehicles outfitted with connected vehicle technology, points to a future of greatly expanded understanding of roadway events, far beyond simply reading crash data.

“Connected vehicle data allows us to know what’s happening now. And that’s a huge thing. And I think that’s where a lot of the potential is, to allow us to actively monitor the roadways,” said Meredith Nelson, connected and automated vehicles analyst with the Michigan Department of Transportation.

“Connected vehicle data is a great supplement to help us build that full picture,” Meredith added during a recent webinar organized by StreetLight Data, a transportation analysis company, to discuss the research findings.

The research looked at data collected from Ford vehicles in the Detroit metro region equipped with connected vehicle technology from January 2020 to June 2020, drawing on data collected by Ford’s Safety Insights platform in partnership with StreetLight Data. The data offers insights into near-miss events like hard braking, hard acceleration and hard corners. In 2020 alone, Ford has measured more than a half-billion events from tens of millions of trips.

Traditionally, researchers relied on police-reported crash data, which had its drawbacks, in part, because of the delay in reporting, said Peter Savolainen, an engineering professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Michigan State University, with a research focus looking at road user behavior.

“As we look at some of the connected vehicle data, that can become available almost on a day-to-day, real-time basis,” Savolainen explained, in some of his comments on the webinar panel. “So we can be a bit more proactive in terms of how we try to address some of these issues.”

It’s not just the speed of receiving the data, but the level of detail that’s never been available, such as knowing where a motorist slammed their brakes, which, when paired with other data sets like the locations of work zones or even crosswalks, can offer larger insights into how to make these areas safer, even though an actual crash never occurred.

Similarly, StreetLight Data has been involved in research into bike and pedestrian safety.

“And the biggest problem we had is that there aren’t enough crashes and fatalities reported to get any statistics done in most locations,” observed Laura Schewel, CEO of StreetLight Data.

“So you have to use 10 years of data to get enough. Which might be OK. But things can change a lot in 10 years,” she added.

“The availability of data that indicates something dangerous… having that available everywhere, and having it available in snow time and not snow time, having enough to really start to analyze, is really just as exciting as the timeliness of the connected vehicle data,” said Schewel.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, driving patterns and traffic volumes experienced huge shifts in nearly every corner of the country. In Michigan, travel in 2020 was down 20 percent to 30 percent statewide, and as much as 70 percent in the early stages of the pandemic, said Savolainen. However, the data pointed to the number of increased crashes occurring on lower speed roads, and in particular involving pedestrians and cyclists.

Going forward, “we don’t really know what the new normal is going to be following the pandemic,” he added, seeming to underscore the value in having access to more detailed data to allow transportation officials to be more proactive in the steps they take to improve highway safety.

“Traditional crash analysis is inherently reactive. You’re looking at the historical crash data, you’re trying to find patterns in it,” said Cal Coplai, urban planner and data scientist with Ford Mobility. Whereas, connected vehicle data allows researchers and transportation planners to “find emerging issues.”

Events from connected vehicles can be used as “a leading indicator to say, ‘hey there might be a problem here,’” said Savolainen.

“For the whole safety community, there’s a lot of promise in looking at this as either a supplement to, or surrogate for, fully supported crash data,” he added.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.