A ‘smart’ solution to road safety

Dr. Yotam Abramson: Our solution is ready for deployment immediately. Nothing needs to be installed in the car, and we are not inventing any new signs.When Dr. Yotam Abramson, of the Technion in Haifa, carried out a survey of drivers …

Dr. Yotam Abramson: Our solution is ready for deployment immediately. Nothing needs to be installed in the car, and we are not inventing any new signs.When Dr. Yotam Abramson, of the Technion in Haifa, carried out a survey of drivers to find out if they looked at stop signs at busy intersections, he was surprised to discover that only 17 out of 80 actually looked at the sign. The rest hardly seemed to notice it.

While some drivers will stop anyway, others do not. And that’s the problem. Israel has a high death rate on the roads. Between 2002 and 2006, there were 1,867 fatal accidents on the country’s roads (the number of people killed is between 10-20% more). About 480 of these accidents were at intersections, and the majority were at intersections without traffic lights, where the only form of control was a stop, or right of way sign. These were just the fatal accidents, the figures did not include serious or light injuries, or damage to property.

“In many cases, drivers don’t see traffic signs, or they don’t pay attention to them. They simply don’t get the message that they should stop and look,” Abramson told ISRAEL21c.

Now Abramson could have the solution. He and Prof. David Mahalal, also of the Technion, have developed a ‘smart’ road sign designed to reduce accidents by helping drivers make split-second decisions at intersections with no traffic lights.

The sign, which is the first of its kind in the world, sets off strong flashing lights if it detects that a driver entering the secondary road, which does not have the right of way, could be in the line of collision with a vehicle entering from the main street. The solution consists of two video cameras on a pole, one focused on the main street and one on the secondary one. These cameras send information to a computer that processes the video data. When it identifies a collision risk it activates the flashing lights on the stop sign to attract the driver’s attention.

Sounds easy, but the technology is complicated because calculations must be accurate. “We don’t want to activate the signs too often if there is no just cause because it will erode attention,” explains Abramson. “If the lights flash all the time people will start to ignore it, the lights will become part of the background.”

The lights are LED lights directed specifically at the driver. “The lights are very strong, but you only see that at their highest level if you are in the correct location,” says Abramson.

The signs are now being tested at two dangerous intersections in Tel Aviv, chosen by the municipality because of the high number of accidents that occur there. Both locations have limited visibility, traffic moves quickly, and the driver does not know intuitively who has the right of way.

“I went to visit these sites and people living nearby told me there are is a crash at least once a week, sometimes severe. They told me that every day you hear the screech of tires,” says Abramson.

In an initial trial, Abramson found that the use of flashing lights meant 56 out of 80 drivers looked at the sign, a vast improvement on the results without lights.

Abramson is passionate about road safety. The researcher, who has a BSc. and an MSc in computer science from Tel Aviv University, was following a conventional career in the high tech industry when he decided, at the age of 33, that he wanted to do something to try to improve safety on the roads. He gave up his job in 2002, and began studying for his PhD. on intelligent vehicles at the School of Mines in France. At the same time, he took a job for car manufacturer Renault, also working in the same field. Much of his work in this field was on accident prevention, and he studied new in-car technologies designed to alert drivers about potential accidents.

In 2005, Abramson returned to Israel and found a position at the Transportation Research Institute (TRI) of the Technion. His goal was to bring the intelligence he had gained in France back to Israel. Since there is no car manufacturing industry in Israel, the only possible solution was to include this intelligence in external systems like street signs.

That year Abramson and Mahalal won a two-year research tender from the Israel National Authority of Road Safety with cooperation from the Tel Aviv Municipality to develop the smart street sign. They began work in 2006 with two research students. Development of the device is now complete, and evaluation has begun.

For the first month, Abramson will not activate the signs, but will log all events that take place at the intersections. The signs will then be activated the following month and results compared. Once this trial is over, he plans another three-month trial to follow.

“This is a very important project,” says Abramson. “There are other projects around the world where people are working on accident prevention but all of them demand that special equipment is installed in a car. That would mean equipping all the cars in a country to make the system work. This is expensive and time-consuming. Our solution is ready for deployment immediately. Nothing needs to be installed in the car, and we are not inventing any new signs.

“The most expensive part of our system is bringing the electricity to the site and we plan to develop a solar-powered version which will be much lower in price. The cost of the cameras and flashing lights is relatively cheap.”

There has already been great international interest in the smart signs and Abramson was recently contacted by officials from the US Department of Transportation-sponsored effort called Cooperative Intersection Collision Avoidance Systems who were interested to learn more about the project.

Abramson’s work does not stop there. He and his students have already begun work on a smart sign solution for intersections with traffic lights. The goal here is not to introduce flashing lights, but to delay a green light on one street by one or two seconds if the system notes that someone has run a red light on the intersecting road. “No one will even know that something was activated, but an accident can be prevented,” says Abramson, who adds that this technology would be accompanied by enforcement equipment so as not to encourage people to run the lights, knowing that the oncoming traffic would be stopped. Abramson is now in the process of raising funds for this project.

Another project he has up his sleeve is for automatic steering control. At present, car width lanes must be between 3.30 to 3.50 meters in order for the driver to navigate them safely and successfully. As more and more people purchase cars, however, road space is becoming tighter and tighter. “As the number of cars increase we are gradually running out of space on our roads, and we lack space to make them any bigger,” says Abramson. One solution would be to reduce the width of the lanes to between 1.80-2 meters so that more cars could use the existing space. Automatic steering control, which could be over-ridden in an emergency, would ensure that these new narrow lanes could still be driven safely. “This is a very futuristic project, but it’s our job to think of things that people may need in 10 years time,” says Abramson.

This is far ahead, however. In the meantime, Abramson has high hopes for his first smart sign, which if all goes well he hopes to one day commercialize. “We are very optimistic that the experiment will show that our sign reduces risk,” he says. “We full expect it to be a life-saver.”

About Nicky Blackburn

Editor and Israel Director, Nicky Blackburn has worked extensively as a journalist and editor both in Britain and Israel for a range of national and international publications including The Cambridge Evening News, London News, Travel Weekly, Israel High Tech Investor, and The Times of London. She was the Associate Editor at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine, and the High-Tech Correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.