Behind the new tech inside Abilene traffic signals

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ABILENE, Texas (KTAB) – Traffic signals pack a technological punch that you may not expect. It takes a lot of computing power to be able to optimize the lights to give drivers the quickest and safest commute. With new cameras coming to nearly fifty intersections this year, intersections are becoming even better at that job.

Some intersections downtown still work on technology from the sixties: mechanically timed light changes. The rest use cameras mounted on tall poles. They see in black and white, and they have limited capabilities.

The new camera systems are more compact, have color images, and are able to use a lot of information to optimize signal timing. They can also communicate that information to other signals.

Traffic engineer James Rogge explains,”They can see what traffic is happening here, and automatically move more traffic through the intersection. If this intersection has more traffic, it can stay green longer, and shut this one down earlier so we’re not getting gridlock, or having traffic back up anywhere.”

Many people may think that these cameras have a different purpose, like taking photos of drivers who run red lights. That’s been outlawed for five years; Abilene has no red light cameras, and you won’t get a ticket from the cameras in place. In fact, they don’t actually store any images.

What the cameras do store is enough information to make a graph showing when the intersection is busy, and what drivers are doing. Rogge says that there are different lines that show, “right turns and left turns. Then we have the total volume of traffic through the intersection.” Why store that information? “That gives me an idea of what traffic looks like during peak hours.”

Other capabilities of the new system include the ability to track vehicle speed. For instance, if a car is nearing the intersection at normal speed as the light turns yellow, the light will remain yellow for an extra second, to keep the light from changing while vehicles are in the middle of the intersection.

The system is also capable of detecting pedestrians using the crosswalk. It can identify how many people are walking, and estimate their speed, making sure that vehicles and people are out of the intersection when the lights change.

The eventual goal is for the entire network of traffic signals to operate on this new technology, connecting all signals together to optimize traffic flow city wide.

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