Minnesota study shows effectiveness of lane control signs

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Intelligent lane control signs (ILCS) are becoming increasingly popular for agencies to deploy in high-crash areas on busy metropolitan streets as a way to reduce congestion and improve safety. However, their effectiveness depends on driver compliance.

In a recent project a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies (CTS) set out to determine whether drivers are, in fact, heeding the messages displayed via warning systems, which use displays above lanes to warn drivers of incidents ahead. To do so they studied the effectiveness of ILCS messages during incidents in the high-crash area of westbound I-94 along the southern edge of downtown Minneapolis. For the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) funded project, CTS researchers selected 28 incidents from among the 481 that occurred between 2012 and 2013. They thoroughly analyzed each of these 28 events using loop detector and lane-change data and also performed statistical analyses to test several hypotheses.

“This two-mile stretch of road experiences more crashes than any other freeway location in Minnesota, with crash events observed almost every other day on average,” explained John Hourdos, director of the Minnesota Traffic Observatory and the study’s principal investigator. “This section of highway is also the site of our unique field laboratory, which allows us to gain a detailed picture of the area through seamless surveillance coverage and precise traffic measurements. Instead of taking the more traditional approach of testing and measuring the effect an ILCS system has on overall congestion, we aimed to evaluate and quantify the effect the system has on drivers, specifically on inducing desirable lane selection behavior. Comparing and modeling the lane-change rates was the centerpiece of this research.”

Based on the project results, researchers concluded that the use of ILCS for incident management has a significant effect on driver behavior, specifically in prompting proper lane selection during capacity-reducing incidents. Other project findings included: using more than two sets of signs upstream of an incident produces no additional benefit; strong messages, such as ‘Lane closed ahead’ and ‘Merge’, do the best job of inducing lane change; the presence of first responders has an observable positive effect on lane change, but is not as effective as instructions on an ILCS; and ILCS can become ineffective under stop-and-go conditions.

Hourdos noted, “We saw that the ILCS were capable of emptying the incident lane well upstream of the obstruction caused by the incident, even when the next lane was considerably congested. After a certain point, the preferred operational strategy may be to display an innocuous message such as ‘Use caution’, rather than instructing drivers to change lanes, in order to preserve the storage capacity of all lanes upstream of an incident.”

Brian Kary, MnDOT freeway operations engineer, commented, “The study showed that the ILCS are effective in changing driver behavior, but it did not compare how much additional benefit they provide compared with standard variable message signs (VMS). Although we saw measurable benefits from the deployment through this study, more research is needed to see if the ILCS are a cost-effective approach to managing traffic during incidents.”

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International magazine and the Traffic Technology Today website since he joined the company in May 2014. Prior to this he worked on some of the UK's leading consumer magazine titles including Men's Health and Glamour, beginning his career in journalism in 1997 after graduating with a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).

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