Aug. 24-30, 2001
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Taking research on the road
Scientists get $9.3 million to study diabetes link with heart disease
Ray Turner is still in the game

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Preventing a slow, silent epidemic
In Memoriam
"Move-In Day" and other events
Taking research on the road
Lance Dougald and Brian Smith
Matt Kelly
Lance Dougald (left) and Brian Smith sit in the back of the Smart Travel van, reviewing traffic data as it is collected on computer monitors.

By Matt Kelly

It’s a long way from counting cars by hand to see how bad traffic is.

Brian Smith, assistant professor of civil engineering at U.Va., and Lance Dougald, a transportation engineer for the Virginia Transportation Research Council, sat in the parking lot of the Charlottesville Fire Department on the 250 bypass, monitoring traffic with a video camera that hovered overhead on a pole and computers from the back of the Smart Travel van. As the cars whizzed by, they appeared on a video terminal, their speed registering and a letter popping up to denote vehicle classification.

“We can get a print of how the highway is operating,” Dougald said, scanning the images on the computer screen.

The van, which the University purchased in February and had customized by engineering students, is a mobile data-gathering machine, using the video camera mounted on a 45-foot telescoping aluminum pole to monitor traffic. The information is fed into a computer that records details including speed, distance between vehicles, classification of vehicle, extrapolation of number of cars per hour and traffic flow. The data, which is preserved on video tape, can be customized — such as logging only vehicles of a certain size.

While owned by the University, the van is used by both U.Va. and the Virginia Transportation Research Council to gather data and perform studies, such as determining existing traffic patterns and flows, to aid in predicting how new construction or highway changes would affect traffic. The research council studies transportation for government and private firms.

There are some travel research vans available from private companies, but this is the only one in Virginia, according to Smith, who said the University’s van was designed as well as put together by students, with engineering graduate student Michael Pack heading the team. The van’s final price tag of about $100,000, was about 50 percent less than it would have cost to buy it custom built, Smith said, adding that it was a good experimental project for the engineering students. Future students will have an opportunity to make suggestions and changes.

The students started with a V-10 cargo van designed as a television remote truck and fitted it with computers and its extended pole. Dougald said it could be parked on the shoulder of the road, with the camera aimed at traffic inches from the van. They have used this technique for studying traffic patterns on the Washington Beltway, he said.

“Since we’ve had it, we’ve come up with so many more applications,” Smith said.
Dougald noted that the van can also be connected to traffic lights to control them manually, and it can program messages for a computerized sign board. If there is congestion ahead, for example, it can advise drivers to slow down.

“This is a good tool, especially now with traffic such an issue in the larger cities,” Dougald said.


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