ODOT rolls out new smart signs to help drivers avoid trouble

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Evening rush hour starts to jam both directions on I-205 in Clackamas County. ODOT officials say traffic is getting worse in some areas. To combat that, the agency has launched a series of new signs offering information on congestion and drive times.If you’re like many people, you’ve noticed that traffic is worse this summer.

That’s not just a matter of perception, says Oregon Department of Transportation spokesperson Dave Thompson. Traffic volume has been creeping up this year and last. From 2012 to 2013 it was up about 2.3 percent along Interstate 5 at Wilsonville and points along Interstate 205 show similar increases.

In part to combat this problem, ODOT is rolling out new digital signs with real-time traffic information designed to help motorists stay safe and use alternate routes.

“We recognize that we will never build our way out of congestion,” Thompson says. “There isn’t room, there isn’t money, there isn’t political will to do that.”

Instead, Thompson says the department is focusing on ways to smooth traffic flows. Much like how rice clogs a funnel if poured too fast, the counter-intuitive approach to traffic is to slow folks down so that everybody continues to move instead of getting stuck.

There are three new types of signs to be rolled out this summer.

The first, launched July 10 throughout the Portland area, will display travel times to major interchanges. The idea is that if motorists see that their 15-minute commute is going to be more like 25 minutes, they can either take a deep breath and crank the radio, or take an alternate routes, and traffic will clear up faster.

The second will be launched on Highway 217 some time this summer. The signs will offer advisory speeds and information on when congestion starts.

Thompson explains that they won’t be legal speed limits, just suggestions on what is coming ahead: “If you go this speed you probably shouldn’t run into any extra trouble. If you go faster, you’ll have to slam on your breaks.” That can cause secondary crashes and slow everybody down even more, he says.

The third system is along southbound I-5 and Interstate 405 around the Marquam Bridge and will also show advisory speed limits.

This is in addition to ramp meters, which already use sensors in the road to know when freeways are getting congested and allow one vehicle at a time to merge onto freeways.

With all of these combined efforts, ODOT officials are hoping to slow traffic enough that it doesn’t stop.

“Every one minute of blockage creates an average of five minutes of back up,” Thompson says.

In addition to his department’s efforts, Thompson advises motorists to take another look at their commute and think creatively: Could you go in earlier? Stay later? Telecommute? Take public transit? Carpool?

“We all get into habits,” he says.

Are you driving too politely?

ODOT spokesman Dave Thompson says Portland drivers, in contrast to those in bigger cities like Los Angeles or Boston, are too polite for their own good.

“In Oregon we are exceedingly polite,” he says. When we use turn signals “It’s a: ‘Please, may I?’ Every other place it’s: ‘Hey, I just gave you notice.’”

When local drivers use their turn signal as a request, they often drive slower. The oncoming driver either has to slow down to allow them in or choose to deny them access and dangerously speed up around them.

Waiting until the end of a lane to merge can lead to the holy grail: the “zipper merge” — one car from each lane taking its turn.

“We are very polite and I love that, but that makes for inefficient driving sometimes,” Thompson says.

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