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A Smartphone Solution to Preventing Vehicle Collisions With Pedestrians, Cyclists

Researcher Using Mobile Device Data to Study Hot Spots for Crashes

By Robert Herschbach

Person crosses the street at an intersection

Photo by iStock

Anonymized data from mobile devices can help traffic engineers and planners solve safety problems on roadways and at intersections while avoiding the need to do ponderous manual traffic counts, according to new UMD research.

The mobile devices that often get blamed in traffic accidents involving pedestrians and bicycles could soon help prevent them. 

Civil and environmental engineering Assistant Research Professor Chenfeng Xiong is leading a project using location-based data from the smartphones we carry to glean insights into the hazards of particular intersections or road segments without dispatching crews to far-flung locations.

“Typically, in order to understand the volume of pedestrian and bicycle activities, we have to rely on very tedious manual or automatic counting stations. Those gathering the data have to go to different critical intersections or segments and count how many people are crossing the street or walking”—which itself can be hazardous, Xiong said.

The new approach harnesses the capabilities of UMD’s Maryland Transportation Institute (MTI), where Xiong is assistant director of transportation modeling research, and is supported in part by funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation and Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration.

Xiong will feed the massive volumes of anonymized data he collects from mobile device location-based services into algorithms developed at MTI for analysis. The results are expected to be quicker, cheaper and, most importantly, much more precise than the manual approach.

“With our algorithms and the data analytics strength we have accumulated at MTI, we can use the mobile device data to calculate pedestrian-bicycle volumes at a very fine grain of temporal definition,” he said. “We’ll also be able to cover all areas of Maryland, whereas right now there are gaps.”

With improved data availability, decision makers will have a sounder basis for developing policies aimed at stopping the accidents that claim the lives of more than 100 Maryland pedestrians and bicyclists a year on average, including nearly one-fourth of all traffic fatalities in 2019.

“That’s a huge loss to society,” Xiong said. “We believe our tools and methods can help Maryland state agencies in determining where the problems are and better allocating resources to reduce fatalities and achieve the goal of zero deaths.”

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