- The Washington Times - Friday, November 25, 2005

Cell phones — often maligned because motorists talking on them can get into accidents that result in backups — will now be used to help ease congestion in the region.

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) next year will begin using relayed signals from cell phone towers to pinpoint where traffic has ground to a halt, thus enabling highway officials to distribute timely traffic reports and help motorists avoid backups.

The program initially will focus on Baltimore and the surrounding area. If successful, the initiative will take on the D.C. area, in addition to side streets and roads in Baltimore.

SHA spokesman David Buck said the system will be an “invaluable tool.”

“It’s completely win-win for us,” he said. “It doesn’t cost [SHA] a penny, and with this system, we will be able to say very accurately to motorists that they’ll have X amount of minutes from point A to point B.”

The Center for Advanced Transportation Technology (CATT) Laboratory at the University of Maryland will help SHA analyze data from the program.

The program was developed jointly by the Canada-based engineering firm Delcan.NET and ITIS Holdings, a British traffic-technology company.

The new traffic system can monitor several hundreds of thousands of cell phones at once, said Michael Pack, the laboratory’s director. The cell phones must be on but don’t have to be in use.

Delcan will purchase the cell phone information from Cingular Wireless, said Richard Mudge, Delcan’s vice president. The program uses pattern-recognition to weed out cell phone users who aren’t in vehicles or on a roadway monitored by the system.

Data would come in from cell phone towers about every five minutes, Mr. Mudge estimated.

The real-time information would be distributed to the public via radio, television, traffic agency Web sites and electronic message signs, Mr. Pack said.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of signs that just warn of congestion ahead, the signs said expect five-minute delays and gave specific [alternate] roads to take?” he said.

Mr. Pack said the university will begin receiving data to analyze early next year and will give an assessment about six months later. Laboratory officials said the monitoring technology could possibly help reduce congestion on some area roadways by 50 percent.

The Maryland Board of Public Works approved a two-year, $5.6 million contract for the project in September 2004.

Delcan.NET contributed $3.7 million, with the remaining $1.9 million coming entirely from federal and Interstate 95 Corridor Coalition funding.

Mr. Mudge said the company is negotiating with all of the highway groups in the region including Virginia’s to implement the system, adding that he is “100 percent” certain the cell phone data received will be anonymous.

“Cingular scrambles the data before they provide it, so there’s no way we could track individual numbers,” he said.

Chuck Jackson, president of Citizen Advocates for Safe and Efficient Travel, a motorist advocacy group, said he will reserve judgment until seeing a more developed form of the program. But he expressed skepticism about its ability to warn drivers in time.

“The question is, how will they get that information out to [motorists], and will that information come back in a timely fashion?” he said. “The last thing we need is another traffic service telling us where the traffic jams are. We need to work on eliminating the backups.”

John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said privacy concerns could arise with the handling of phone numbers.

“It’s a great way to get immediate traffic updates,” he said. “But what civil libertarians will be concerned about is, does it stop there? If it does, it’s a great tool. If it doesn’t, then it conjures up claims of ‘Big Brother’-ism.”

Officials for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland declined to comment.

Arthur Spitzer, legal director of ACLU’s National Capital Area chapter, tentatively has approved the project but said he isn’t sure how it will detect and filter out vehicles with numerous cell phones aboard, such as public transit or school buses.

“But as long as the technology only enables them to see where there’s clusters of [cell phones] and doesn’t allow them to track movements or, even worse, listen in on conversations, then there’s no problem,” he said”

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