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OPINION | GREG HARTON: Researchers think they can help with inexplicable slowdowns on highways

by Greg Harton | November 27, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.


Millions of Americans took to the nation's highways last week in pursuit of turkey and reunions with families and friends. I was certainly among them, driving south to Sherwood Wednesday, then a little farther to Pine Bluff on Thanksgiving Day.

Organizations that evaluate traffic data suggested I should have left in the morning or after 8 p.m. to avoid the worst traffic. So naturally, we departed around 5 p.m., smack in the middle of the worst time.

If you're headed home today from a four-day Thanksgiving trip, you might want to know the worst time for highway travel will fall between 4 and 8 p.m.

I enjoy driving and our trip to central Arkansas thankfully went relatively smoothly. But it was one of those journeys where Interstate 49 then Interstate 40 were covered up in cars, trucks and tractor-trailer rigs. And our trip home the next evening added rain to the equation. A full but wet highway of vehicles moving along at 75 mph -- or perhaps a touch more at times -- can produce a case of white knuckles.

If you've driven highways very much, you know such crowded conditions translate into plenty of brake lights as drivers try to match the ebbs and flows of traffic. With so many vehicles on the road, a simple brake tap by one motorist can set off a chain reaction that causes a whole section of vehicles to clog the road. I've seen instances where the backup eventually leads to a standstill, which greatly increases the chance of rear-ender accidents on an interstate.

So I was glad to read in Friday's paper about Vanderbilt University research into what they call "phantom traffic jams." They studied the impact of technology much like adaptive cruise control -- the kind that responds to the flow of traffic ahead. They modified it, though, to take into account what was happening far ahead. If more cars are adapting to the traffic "big picture," it results in fewer traffic hold-ups. Researchers found it doesn't have to be all cars. Just enough to affect overall behaviors.

Anything that keeps traffic is awesome. That why I like roundabouts, more and more of which are being built in our cities here in Northwest Arkansas. In normal use, they keep cars moving rather than backing up at traffic signals that require motorists to stop and wait at intersections. And, if accidents do happen, they're generally less intense because all the cars are moving in the same direction rather than perpendicular directions.

Of course, there's probably no system that can overcome the challenges of drivers who insist on going 20 mph over the speed limit and have never seen a vehicle ahead they're not eager to pass. And I doubt there's a system that can prevent some motorists from deciding their time behind the steering wheel is also a good time to catch up on Snapchat, Facebook and TikTok.

If Vanderbilt's researchers are taking suggestions, they would make a lot of Fayetteville drivers and Arkansas Razorback football fans happy if they developed a system to make traffic flow immediately after football games when a 75,000-seat stadium empties onto the streets and "Go Hogs" becomes "Stop-and-Go Hogs."

Where's the research funding for that?

•••

CORRECTION: In my column last week about the hiring of Charles Robinson as the University of Arkansas' chancellor, I had one of those moments where I wrote something my brain knew was incorrect, but it didn't bail me out. Steaurt Walton is the grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, but I misidentified the relationship.

Do I get any points for spelling his first name right?


Print Headline: Backed-up highways not my jam

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