Friday, November 03, 2006

fastrak doesn't cause speeding, sheesh

This article showed up in our paper the other day.

Fastrak's primary function is automated toll-taking across any of our seven or so bridges. You set up an account, load it with your credit card, and they send you a nifty box, a transponder, which you stick to your dash or front glass. When you go through a toll gate, something in the gate says hello to your transponder and deducts your account. If your account falls below $20 it will automatically charge your card an amount based on your average use for the month. In exchange you never have to hunt the floor for $3 to pony up, and you go through gates specially devoted to Fastrak users, which even in rush hour rarely have more than 2 cars backed up. You still slow down to about 10-15mph, but at least you're not coming to a dead stop.

As it turns out, the transponders are being read for the light boards that display travel times to various destinations. You can see the readers as you drive along the freeway. Presumably if you pass two readers, they pick up your transponder's ID, calculate the time between them, and add yours to the average. It's designed specifically to not actually identify you as a driver, so if you get caught speeding it's because you didn't see the black-and-white, not because Fastrak fingered you.

I think it's a great system. The first time I saw something like this was in 1998 in Paris, and I wondered why the hell Silicon Valley, technology center of the universe, hadn't done it. You can look at the board and see how late or how early you're going to be, so you can make appropriate phone calls (using your hands-free phone, mind you.) This is also tied into 511, the number you dial to get road conditions. That one's also voice activated, so you just tell it what freeway you want to know about, and it'll play information relating to that: accidents and min/max speed. Like I said, a great system.

But the article poses the question, Do the light boards make people speed? I really don't think so. I don't think people look at that time and say to themselves, I wanna beat the machine. This is an average time, for heaven's sake, and if traffic is bogged, you're not going to be speeding that good anyway. And how much satisfaction can a person derive from getting to Palo Alto one minute sooner than the board said? If people are that dumb, then by the time they get to Palo Alto they've probably forgotten what the board said anyway.

What I think is more dangerous are those pads on surface streets that control the stop lights. They change the light from green to red if nothing hits it for a certain amount of time. Some of these pads have very short switch times, so people trying to get through a light will be right on the tail of the car in front. This is IMHO much more likely to cause an accident than someone speeding, because there is a clear and immediate benefit to getting through that light. Admittedly, a high-speed accident is more dangerous, but a fender bender isn't much fun either.

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