- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Ever driven into a traffic jam just after the guy on the radio said the road was all clear? Or braced yourself for the congestion he warned about only to zip right through?

A host of private companies say they have the one thing that can ease such frustrations: better information. Now one of those companies, SpeedInfo Inc., has brought its technology to the nation’s capital, installing 50 solar-powered, wireless radar sensors along major arteries in the District. The devices take readings of average traffic speeds twice a minute in both directions, a method the company says provides a far more accurate picture of road conditions than can be gleaned from hovering helicopters or highway patrol alerts.

In a business model that SpeedInfo hopes will flourish across the country, the San Jose, Calif.-based company is letting the city use the data for traffic planning free of charge in exchange for access to the side of the road. SpeedInfo plans to sell the information to paying customers, including broadcasters and companies that provide information for in-car navigation devices.

The problem with traditional traffic reports is that in most of the country they rely on highway patrol accident reports that come 30 to 40 minutes late and a few helicopters that get into the sky during rush hour, SpeedInfo chief executive Doug Finlay said.

“Chopper Bill gets in the sky and says, ‘Oh, I’m looking at the road, and the cars are going slow,’” Mr. Finlay said. “Chopper Bill is the best data you got.”

Tim Lomax, a researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute, said a recent proliferation of high-tech traffic data systems is good for drivers.

“Even if it doesn’t eliminate traffic congestion, they at least give people an idea of what sort of choices they’re facing and more control over their destiny, which is part of the frustrating element of traffic congestion,” Mr. Lomax said.

Mr. Finlay said he hoped success in the District would help bring transportation officials across the country on board.

“We view Washington, D.C., as very strategic,” Mr. Finlay said. “The biggest issue for us is getting access to the side of the road to put up our equipment.”

The company has also approached Maryland and Virginia with the hope of establishing a network throughout the entire region, which is one of the most congested regions in the nation.

Each of SpeedInfo’s sensors weighs about 16 pounds and sits under a 1-square-foot solar panel. The sensors are mounted on light or sign poles and transmit data wirelessly to a server in San Jose. The last of the D.C. sensors were installed about three weeks ago, Mr. Finlay said.

The four-year-old privately held company so far has installed about 450 sensors nationwide, mostly in the San Francisco Bay area, where they are used for the 511 system, a free service that provides information on traffic conditions by phone and on the Web.

Erik Linden, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Transportation, said the District’s arrangement with SpeedInfo is “a healthy public-private relationship to benefit motorists.” He said the department will first work with the company to ensure the data’s accuracy before using them to quantify congestion. Ultimately, the department may use the information to better manage the flow, he said. In addition, the sensors are located on some of the city’s main evacuation routes, meaning the information could have emergency-planning uses.

Lest the words “radar” and “speed” alarm high-intensity motorists, Mr. Finlay emphasized the sensors are not equipped with cameras.

“We don’t have any way of determining who is going 100 miles per hour,” he said. “We just know someone is.”

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