Smarter Highways technology coming to I-90, SR 520

The state will install new signs over I-90 and SR 520 next year to give motorists information about traffic and conditions. - Courtesy photo, Washington State Department of Transportation
The state will install new signs over I-90 and SR 520 next year to give motorists information about traffic and conditions.
— image credit: Courtesy photo, Washington State Department of Transportation

Innovative traffic technology is about to make Puget Sound highways smarter and more efficient than ever. The new system, active traffic management (ATM), features a network of sensors and electronic signs on northbound I-5, SR 520 and I-90 that automatically responds to traffic conditions and gives drivers information that will result in a safer and smoother trip.

“Traffic engineers call it active traffic management, but it’s really about making our highways smarter," said Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond.

According to Hammond, smarter Highways technology will move traffic more effectively by using existing highways better - "a key element of our three-part Moving Washington Strategy to reduce congestion,” she said. “This new system builds and expands on the advanced tools drivers are using today and takes them to the next level.”

The overhead, electronic signs will automatically alert drivers to change lanes when an incident blocks traffic ahead or to adjust their speed before they reach slower-moving traffic. It will help reduce rear-end collisions, allow for earlier escape to alternate routes and smooth lane shifting caused by incidents like stalls or collisions.

“Washington is one of the first states to introduce this cutting edge technology,” said WSDOT Toll Division Director Craig Stone. “We’re activating these high-tech signs starting next summer and want drivers to know what’s coming so they’ll be ready.”

Drivers will use Smarter Highways on three of Washington’s busiest corridors. The locations and activation dates are:

Northbound I-5 between Boeing Access Road and I-90 in summer 2010

SR 520 between I-5 and 130th Avenue NE in Bellevue in summer 2010

I-90 between I-5 and 150th Avenue SE in Bellevue in spring 2011

Congestion and collisions are closely related, highway officials say. In 2008 alone, 639 collisions contributed to backups on northbound I-5 between Boeing Access Road and I-90. Reducing collisions by one-third will make highway travel safer, keep traffic and goods moving, improve trip reliability and decrease the time people spend everyday sitting in traffic, officials say.

“Slowing down drivers before they reach the point where the traffic stops will prevent “panic braking” that can cause collisions,” Stone said. “The new signs will provide drivers advance warning to help keep traffic moving safer and more smoothly.”

WSDOT traffic engineers studied similar technologies used successfully in European countries, including Germany and Great Britain, where Smarter Highways helped reduced congestion-causing collisions by as much as 30 percent.

Smarter Highways build and expand on existing tools that WSDOT has used successfully for years, including ramp meters, traffic cameras and electronic message signs. Variable speed limit signs already help make driving in winter weather safer on both I-90 Snoqualmie Pass and US 2 Stevens Pass. Earlier this year, the department turned on the state’s first variable speed limit signs on an urban freeway – I-90 from Bellevue to Seattle.

State highway officials see Smarter Highways technology and techniques as a vital component of Moving Washington, WSDOT’s statewide strategy for improving mobility.

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