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How Bellevue, Wash., Uses Tech to Make Its Roads Safer

Smart cameras above Bellevue intersections can record near-hits, along with pedestrian and car positions, so the city might be able to change its signals or lane layouts before tragedy strikes.

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(TNS) — Someday in the near future, cars and bicycles will be able to "see" each other when they converge in a hazardous intersection.

Already, smart cameras above Bellevue intersections can record near-hits, along with pedestrian and car positions, so the city might be able to change its signals or lane layouts before tragedy strikes. Besides at 16 arterial crossroads, the city and Sound Transit will deploy the system at four future light-rail crossings, said Franz Loewenherz, city mobility planning manager.

Those two technologies made waves at a safety-tech forum Monday hosted by Bellevue-based T-Mobile, at its 5G innovation hub in the Spring District, and attended by Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Last year, about 43,000 people died in U.S. traffic crashes, the worst performance in 16 years, and another 20,175 died in the first half of 2022. Locally, there were 670 road fatalities in Washington state in 2021, compared with 574 in 2020 and 538 in 2019, state data says.

"That is decades of planning for speed, not safety, and cars, not people," said Vicky Clarke, policy director for Cascade Bicycle Club.

Homendy said she's often asked what makes her lose sleep.

"What keeps me up at night is the next family I have to talk to after a terrible tragedy," she told the group.

The causes of American road carnage are many: multilane roads with unsafe crosswalks, excessive speed, drug and alcohol abuse, inadequate driver training, lax enforcement of traffic rules, and tall vehicles that block others' vision.

In Seattle, the recent energy from walk-bike advocates has focused on protected bike lanes, or traffic-calming combinations of narrow lanes with low speed limits. Bellevue, Seattle and Washington state have signed "Vision Zero" pledges to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030.

The NTSB has always considered driver technology part of the solution, just as with positive train control, Homendy said in an interview. The board in 1967 endorsed satellite-based technology to alarm and stop a runaway train, which finally became ubiquitous in 2021.

"We've really been on the forefront of technology to save lives for decades," Homendy said. She described it as one part of the Safe Systems Approach, which seeks to remove hazards wherever possible, rather than rely on humans to make 100% safe maneuvers.

Critical mass

Kirk Neibert of T-Mobile explained the potential for connecting vehicles to everything, or "C-V2X," so that through machine learning, cars would detect people walking and bicycling, as well as converging vehicles. Also under development is the "look around" technology, which would tell drivers if it's safe to pass a car or truck ahead.

But there are barriers, what he called a "chicken-and-egg situation," where carmakers and governments are waiting for each other to jump in.

"It's still a relatively expensive proposition to cost-burden every new vehicle with the requisite hardware and HMI [human-machine interface] integration. Until there's better visibility, we need to make a business case," Neibert said.

In other words, it won't be cheap and effective until a critical mass of vehicles is equipped.

But he said T-Mobile and technology company Qualcomm are looking for immediate ways to collaborate on projects within Bellevue. For instance: Create in-vehicle notification of excess speed, even before the driver can see a roadside speed sign. When somebody walking can't make it across the street before the signal change, the change could be delayed and drivers notified to wait a few seconds longer, Neibert said, "just another redundant layer to show there's a potentially dangerous situation."

The next phase, said Neibert, would be to make these alerts available by phone app to all travelers within Bellevue. As more cities follow Bellevue's lead, that makes the case for carmakers and more localities to do so, he said.

"Our intent is to trigger that opportunity, be a national model for other communities," said Loewenherz.

Autonomous vehicles were supposed to solve these challenges, for which C-V2X scanning powers are one necessary piece. Companies and AV zealots predicted self-driving cars would be common by 2020, but that industry has faced many delays and blunders, part of the motivation behind partial high-tech solutions like enhanced driver alerts and AV functions such as lane-control assist.

On your left

A motorist and bicycle rider looped around a parking lot Monday to demonstrate new telematics from intelligent transportation company Spoke that would alert travelers before they notice each other. An orange arrow on the car's dashboard flashes left or right if a bike approaches — reducing the so-called hook crashes where turning drivers hit a cyclist traveling straight.

Spoke has created cellphone-sized devices that can be carried in cars and mounted on bicycles that are expected to be available in late 2023, said CEO Jarrett Wendt. By 2024, he anticipated they will be built in certain brands of bikes and cars, at a cost ranging from $99 to $299.

For many of these high-tech solutions to work, a large share of the nation's 290 million motor vehicles and millions of bikes have to be equipped — no simple matter.

"We do need education, we still need fair and equitable enforcement, we still need engineering solutions," Homendy said, "And investment in public transportation and rail. But technology can play a crucial role in eliminating fatalities and injuries."

Homendy noted the average car lasts 12 years, and that the way to get safety technologies standard on vehicles is for the U.S. Department of Transportation to follow Europe's lead — to base the five-star safety rating not only on people inside the car, but people outside.

© 2022 The Seattle Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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