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Making Drivers Smarter

The U.S. Department of Transportation figures that Americans spend two billion hours a year tied up in traffic. Between wasted time, wasted fuel and lost business, congestion costs the country a whopping $53 billion every year. So how do we get out of this maddening and costly jam?

Not by building: New roads attract new drivers.

The solution is to make existing drivers smarter.

Nachie Marquez starts thinking about her drive in to work the moment she gets up. "I'm on the go. For me, every minute I can save is terrific."

Marquez watches the all-traffic channel, part of a federal program put in place in Phoenix to ease road congestion and cut travel time. The project uses what's called intelligent transportation systems, or ITS.

John Collins, who works on ITS, describes the program as people using technology in transportation to save lives, to save time and to save money.

Collins' job is to bring ITS to every commuter in America. The program works by taking the same data on highway road speeds, closures and accidents, which is already gathered by traffic operation centers, and making it available to everyone, through cell phones, pagers and the information superhighway.

The Arizona Department of Transportation Web site gets up to 100,000 hits a day. Users can click on camera images to see what traffic looks like, and even check to see what tie-ups an average commuter might run into.

Traffic patterns are beginning to change. Like Marquez, many people commute suburb to suburb and not to and from downtown. So, ITS includes linking local surface street cameras to the Internet. But what about drivers already en route?

"Anything can happen from the time I leave my house to the time I get to my destination," Marquez says.

Joel Schwartz's company addresses those minute-to-minute changes on the roads by streaming traffic information to an in-car computer. He thinks courier and other delivery businesses will be big users.

"If they can improve their delivery time from 10:00 to 9:00, because they know what routes to take, they know where the bottlenecks and problems are, it's going to save them all a lot of money," Schwartz says.

ITS can also save lives. Emergency services can determine the quickest route to an accident, while electronic message boards warn commuters of trouble ahead. It might provide an antidote to road rage.

Seattle and San Antonio have pilot programs underway, and New York is scheduled to come onboard next spring. And this year's federal transportation bill guarantees $1.33 billion for intelligent transportation systems over the next six years.

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