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Feb 21, 2013 9:08 AM by Samantha Ptashkin

UA traffic engineer hopes radio communication makes roads safer

TUCSON- Across the country more than 36,000 people were killed in car crashes in 2012.

A University of Arizona traffic engineer is hoping to reduce those numbers by connecting our cars through radio technology.

"Suppose the car in front of you all of a sudden hits its breaks, it takes a human-being a couple seconds to recognize and react to that, it doesn't take a computer nearly as long," Larry Head says.

For the past 20 years Head, who leads the Department of Systems and Industrial Engineering, has been researching ways to make our roadways more safe.

He's behind a national effort from the U.S. Department of Transportation to place a wireless device in every car, so cars can communicate with each other through radio signals. The FCC has reserved a special radio frequency, 5.9 GHz.

"So your car knows its position from GPS and other positioning technologies and it just broadcasts a message as it drives down the road," Head says. "All the other cars can receive that message, then they can figure out how far away you are, or how fast you're going."

If the car picks up on danger ahead, a warning will be sent out. The warning may come in several forms. "Let's say you're approaching a traffic signal, it changes and you're not slowing down," Head says. "It can vibrate the brake pedal, it can blink a light, it can tell you, you need to stop."

Part of Head's job includes making sure the radio signal is prioritized for emergency responders, buses and trucks. "If a truck is moving down a street it has a much harder time stopping if the light turns from green to yellow," Head says. "So we could warn the truck that the light is going to change, or hold the green a little longer."

But not all drivers like the idea. "It's a Big Brother type thing," Brett Larrimore says.

He doesn't trust technology enough to take over his car. "You're losing control of your car to some off site type machine, it's not a good thing," Larrimore says. "You need to be in control of your car all the time."

For now it is just an idea, but the DOT is looking at whether or not to make it a requirement in every car, kind of like seat belts.

Head says even if the DOT makes a decision within the next year, it will most likely be two to five years before every car must have the communication.

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