'ODOT RealTime' signs warn about congestion to stop drivers from hitting the brakes.

ODOT released this simulation of how the traffic signs will work, telling drivers on Highway 217 to slow down as congestion increases.Drivers along Highway 217 might notice something a little different about their commute home.

The Oregon Department of Transportation began using new electronic signs on Tuesday morning in an attempt to ease congestion and reduce crashes on one of the area’s busiest highways.

The large electronic signs, known as “ODOT RealTime,” display information to drivers about crashes and congestion, as well as reduce the speed of cars traveling along the highway to prevent collisions, according to Kim Dinwiddie, a spokeswoman for ODOT.

“The whole point is to give drivers the information to start slowing down before they reach the line of backed up cars, which will definitely reduce rear-end crashes,” Dinwiddie said.

If traffic is flowing normally, the signs won’t display anything, Dinwiddie said. But once traffic slows below 50 mph, the new advisory speed signs tell drivers to slow down before they reach problem areas.

The signs update every minute. As traffic gets worse, the signs display slower advised speeds, Dinwiddie said.

Click here for a video of how ODOT RealTimes works

The signs were installed last year, and ODOT has spent the past several months finalizing the software, Dinwiddie said.

ODOT’s travel information signs, which warn of road conditions and crashes, have also been given an upgrade, Dinwiddie said.

“In the past, signs would say where a crash is, but these will say where the backup starts,” Dinwiddie said. “That way, drivers can anticipate hitting the backup and make a decision about whether they want to stay on that road.”

‘Holistic approach’

The signs are a first for Oregon, Dinwiddie said, but cities across the nation, including Seattle, have adopted similar systems.

Studies in cities that use similar programs have seen overall crashes drop by 20 percent and rear-end collisions have dropped by 30 percent, Dinwiddie said. Secondary crashes, or crashes caused by congestion, dropped by 40 percent.

A car crashes on Highway 217, on average, every other day, Dinwiddie said. More than 70 percent of those crashes are rear-end collisions.

Those incidents are caused by, including the highway's high traffic volume, changing grades and blind curves.

“We all know the problems with (Highway) 217,” Dinwiddie said. “There are problems with congestion as well as crashes.”

The signs have been in the plans for years, Dinwiddie added. In 2010, then-Congressman David Wu and others discussed the idea of variable speed signs as a way to cut traffic.

A study of the highway in 2009 looked at several options for reducing congestion, including closing on-ramps or adding additional lanes, but Dinwiddie said in the end, the electronic signs are better in the long run.

“We took a holistic approach, beyond just widening the road, and we realized we needed to best use the road that we have. This will help people use 217 in a safe manner, which results in a more efficient manner.”

According to ODOT, the cost of adding lanes to Highway 217 could cost as much as $1 billion.

“This was an alternative to widening the highway, which we don’t have the money to do,” Dinwiddie said.

Plans are in the works to roll out the signs to the Interstate-5 and Interstate-405 interchange, as well as the Marquam Bridge this summer, she added. Oregon Route 26 near Mt. Hood could also see the signs in the next few years.

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