A car zooms down a rural stretch of road in the dark of night. Suddenly, in the distance, a traffic stop sign comes to life, its flashing beacon illuminating an intersection that was hidden in the shadows. The beacon captures the driver’s attention immediately, and he engages the car's brakes.
“Smart” traffic signals aren’t just science fiction: Researchers at UTSA are pioneering a new approach to traffic signaling using infrared sensors. Vision Zero's Lauren Simcic checked in with them to learn what it means for vehicle and pedestrian safety.
“We are experimenting with a self-powered, smart detection and warning system that increases safety, reduces the number of crashes and fatalities and decreases economic loss,” said Dr. Sara Ahmed, a professor in the UTSA College of Engineering.
“The device uses a multi-pixel passive infrared sensor to detect the vehicles as it approaches an intersection and once detected, it sends a signal to activate the warning beacon at the stop sign,” Ahmed added.
Dr. Ahmed and Dr. Samer Dessouky of UTSA have designed a prototype for an intelligent stop sign beacon, in collaboration with Dr. Jerome Helffrich at Southwest Research Institute. The UTSA faculty members are now in the market research phase of the project, with support from a graduate student team and funding from the National Science Foundation.
“The City of Surprise, Arizona showed interest, so we are preparing them a prototype and will send it to them soon,” Ahmed said.
This special stop sign is intended for rural locations, especially at night. The beacon flashes when its sensors identify the heat signature of an approaching car. The flashing beacon makes the stop sign more noticeable, and it is less likely to be tuned out by drivers because it is not flashing constantly.
“Many rural towns have high speed limits (70 mph) on roadways in their communities, but their roadways and intersections lack active signage and sustainable power to warn vehicles to slow before approaching,” said Ahmed. “We think our detection and warning system can help reduce this major cause of crashes and fatalities.”
The research team explained additional applications of the infrared sensor, such as detecting vehicle speed and size, anticipating the time until a vehicle reaches an intersection, and identifying pedestrians approaching the street.
The equipment is affordable and portable, making it simple to reproduce upon completion of the research phase. This project demonstrates the partnerships required to make advances in traffic safety, one beacon at a time.