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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 11, 2002

Cameras just first of traffic gizmos

By Mike Leidemann
Transportation Writer

If you love to hate those traffic cameras, wait until you see what's lurking around the corner.

A photo enforcement operator aims a laser at motorists on the Pali Highway, Kailua bound, in a controversial new traffic technology.

Advertiser library photo • Jan. 16, 2002

The sophisticated lasers, computers and cameras used to nab speeders are just one part of a technological revolution in the transportation field that will soon feature everything from traffic signals that adjust themselves to buses that call home when they are lost.

The improvements are known collectively as Intelligent Transportation Systems, or ITS. They represent the application of space-age technology to the most mundane of tasks, how we get back and forth to work every day.

Much of the technology already is showing up in Hawai'i and on the Mainland without nearly the uproar caused by the camera enforcement program. But even supporters admit some of the changes carry potential for abuse.

"It's technology that can improve everybody's life, but it can be double-edged," said C.S. Papacostas, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. "Any change in transportation has to take account of public sentiment."

ITS solutions run the gamut from systems that can monitor hundreds of buses at once to improvements in cars, such as a warning signal that alerts a driver who swerves out of a lane.

"There's all kinds of gee-whiz, whiz-bang stuff out there now, and there's more coming all the time," said Kenneth Stanley, vice president of Oahu Transit Services, which operates Honolulu's bus fleet.

Increasingly, the city's buses are being equipped with global positioning devices, radio transmitters and smart technology that can notify headquarters when a bus has gone off route, and immediately shut down its engine.

Officials are experimenting with technology that will keep riders abreast of the progress of each bus, including an on-board computer that announces upcoming stops, and indicators that can tell those waiting, "The next bus will be here in three minutes."

Oahu Transit Services also is moving to a software system that can track where a passenger gets on or off the bus, how long a passenger is on board, when the bus is running at capacity, and when a driver misses a required stop.

There is even a trial Web site (cityexpress.hawaii.edu/routeb/) that lets riders track every Route B CityExpress! bus, so they can dash to the stop at the last minute.

"It's all done so that we can build better schedules — so that more and more people can count on the bus being there when it's supposed to be," Stanley said.

Of course, the use of technology to improve transportation is nothing new. The first electric traffic light appeared in 1914 in Cleveland, Ohio; the first one in Honolulu was installed at the intersection of Nu'uanu Avenue and Beretania Street in 1936.

In 1991 a federal law mandated that state governments do everything possible to apply enhanced technology to all phases of transportation, Papacostas said. That created a booming ITS industry designed to give traffic professionals and drivers more information about the state of the roadways and who is using them.

Nationwide, the most popular improvement has been traffic cameras. Unlike the photo enforcement cameras, they are used for information only. The remote-controlled cameras originally were used to help planners study traffic trends, but they have proved popular with the public as well.

Honolulu has dozens of the cameras around the island (www .co.honolulu.hi.us/dts/Traffic_Cam/traffic.htm), allowing professionals and motorists to check on road conditions. Police, government officials and news gatherers use them to respond to accidents and problems, sometimes before they are reported elsewhere, but the public also can use them to avoid trouble spots.

Up next: Private companies are beginning to offer custom-tailored traffic reports that could be e-mailed or faxed to a home or business each morning, telling motorists about traffic conditions along a certain route.

Another improvement coming in the not-too-distant future will be smart traffic signals.

"They have built-in sensors that will know when the traffic is backed up, and then be able to keep their green signal on for longer to keep the cars moving," Papacostas said.

One application that raises concern is the use of vehicle tags and readers that allow drivers to zip through tolls without having to stop and pay each time. The prepaid, bar-code systems are growing popular on the Mainland.

But they also could be used to follow a driver's every turn. Many Mainland trucking companies and some commercial fleets use them to track their fleet. In one highly publicized incident last year, a small rental car firm sent a speeding ticket to a customer because it knew from the vehicle tags that he had traveled between two locations faster than the 55-mph speed limits would allow.

Put on a private vehicle, these sensors might let local governments know you got on the H-1 Freeway at Kapolei at 6:42 a.m. and got off at Punchbowl Street at 7:20 a.m. That type of information is invaluable to planners, but hardly acceptable to those concerned about civil rights.

"Great care must be exercised regarding information that relates directly or indirectly to individuals," warns the federal "National ITS Program Plan" report. "Safeguards against inappropriate collection and use of personal data are an absolute social and legal prerequisite."

Drivers are more willing to accept new technology in their cars if it means better safety or convenience, said Dennis O'Keefe, manager of new car sales for Schuman Carriage in Honolulu.

General Motors already includes in most new cars its OnStar safety system, a service that can automatically notify authorities if you are in an accident, help if you're lost, track your car if it's stolen, unlock your doors if you lose your keys, and even contact someone to make dinner reservations for you, O'Keefe said.

The company offers the service to most new car buyers free for the first year.

In the near future, more cars will come equipped with similar features, as well as night-vision technology and collision-avoidance systems, O'Keefe said.

"At first people thought they were just a toy or a gadget, but now they are coming to realize the safety benefits this provides," he said.

Reach Mike Leidemann at mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5460.