How much attention do we need to drive safely and are our roads ready for the future technology of self-driven cars and higher density urban living?

How much attention do we need to drive safely and are our roads ready for the future technology of self-driven cars and higher density urban living?

A study for the quality of driving

A study of an identified route for traffic control mechanisms, signages, speed limits proves that driving in a city requires much more skill and attention than ever before and may not be ready for the future. Are the present systems equipped to handle an increase in density, intensity, and eventually leading towards more people using the existing infrastructure? Are we waiting for an incident to happen? How do we make our public realm more safe and enjoyable? How do we ensure that our roads and ready for all modes of transit and all ages and abilities? Are we prepared for now and the future? These are a few of the questions that prompted us to conduct an independent study.

Calgary ranks as the fifth-best livable city in the world, so no wonder we decided to try and see if it is a pleasure to drive in the city and whether it is ready for the future? We chose a random route and drove our car to identify and observe our experience driving in this beautiful city. Like many Calgarians, we used google maps to guide us in taking us on this scientific enquiry. (Refer Image 1) To keep things as random as possible, we did not pick any particular day or time or even the route. The first part of the study involved driving on this random route and record it using a low-tech device such as our phone. We also took a screengrab of the google map showing us the route, the distance, time, traffic and all other information that google maps can provide to us.

Image 1: Map of the route

After we recorded the video of the route driving through it, we started our further research. Using google earth, we spent considerable hours mapping the route, co-relating it with the video, calculating the time, distance, signages, crossings, traffic signals and other relevant information such as traffic volume statistics. We compiled all the data into an easy to read spreadsheet and created a map of the route showing relevant information. (Refer Image – 2) We also created a google earth video of the route and synced it with our actual video to understand the route both from the driver’s and bird’s eye perspective. This coupled video provided us with the information related to the urban fabric, open spaces and road widths. We also thought this could be a cool idea for future navigating systems in identifying the surrounding.

Image 2: Study of the route

Our study of this identified route gave some very unusual results and posed some serious questions. We drove a distance of 5.5 Kms in 7 minutes and 36 seconds, averaging 43.6 kmph. During this brief drive, we encountered eight traffic signals and 13 pedestrian crossings, requiring us to either stop our vehicle or watch out for any pedestrian every 18 seconds. (Refer Image – 3)

We decided to calculate all the signages on this route and categorized them into major and minor signs. (Refer Image – 4) We encountered 42 major signs requiring our attention and 55 minor signs that provided alternative information to other users of the road, a total of 97 signs, each appearing at an average time of 5.0 seconds while driving. For people who have a habit of reading every sign, it is quite disturbing and, despite its positive intention, leads to loss of attention or becoming insensitive to the overload of information.

Image 3: Observations

The perception of speed is a topic that needs further discussion and understanding. The roads are quite broad and designed for a much higher volume of traffic or higher speed, and the speed is regulated by imposing speed limits, and the information dispersal is by speed limit signages. The city of Calgary traffic volume data of 2018 suggests that the average daily traffic volume on our identified route is between 11,000 to 37,000 on different sections of the road. (Refer to Image – 2) We changed our speed six times due to the speed regulations in place and encountered eight signages limiting speed and six different speed zones in this 5.5 km stretch of the road.

This study resulted in our asking some very grave questions. Do we have an attention span of 5.0 seconds or ready to stop our vehicle every 28 seconds for a pedestrian? (Thankfully low density results in low usage of these pedestrian crossings) Are we attentive enough to take an appropriate response every 18 seconds to either stop our vehicle for a traffic signal or a pedestrian? Is it okay to have so many different speed limits within a city? Is our perception of speed different than the imposed, and what happens if we miss reading the signage?

Detailed analysis of our findings are in the spreadsheet below:

Image 4: Spreadsheet showing the number of signages and traffic control mechanisms

The width of the road, the existing speed limits and street parking resulted in poor visibility of the pedestrian crossings. This fact kept us on our edge while driving, and numerous pedestrian crossings were quite distracting. We could not intuitively manage the speed and felt we were driving much slower than recommended. We would be driving at a higher speed than required due to the lack of references, and the only way we could drive within the prescribed limit was by keeping a constant watch on our speedometer. The result was reduced attention to the signages. We could not find any data relating to any incidents, and although this might be considered positive, this could be a result of low density and low traffic volume. The route we studied is designed primarily for automobiles, despite a few instances where a bike route is randomly made available. Pedestrian crossings were quite wide, requiring the pedestrian to take sufficient time to cross the road and being a winter city resulted in a treacherous crossing with snow and ice. Quite clearly, the route was not pedestrian-friendly.

Traffic and driving within a city is a significant factor that affects the quality of life of citizens. Many factors contribute to an increase in stress and the pressure to be constantly vigilant and to be always attentive while driving is most certainly one of them. If our roads require us to respond every 18 seconds (refer to the spreadsheet), the chance of making a mistake increases exponentially. Driving on roads should be more intuitive, at least on the speed and pedestrian crossings, thereby reducing the stress of driving. As collision points will exponentially increase with multi-modal and multiple users of the road infrastructure, creating a stress-free and safe infrastructure will be crucial in improving the liveability in our cities.

This study is a minimal attempt at a personal level to demonstrate that our urban infrastructure needs a much more detailed study and intervention from the human perspective. The present infrastructure is not clearly ready for future technology and is definitely not prepared for the increase in density. The design of the road itself needs to be studied not just for efficiency but for human comfort and safety. It is not necessary to continue doing what we were doing for decades, particularly as technology is reshaping our urban world. Alternative and more intuitive methods of communicating information to drivers and other users of the road are the need of the hour. Speed controls with speed signages may not be the best way forward. Advanced information systems built into the navigation of automobiles such as informing the driver of the approaching traffic controls, signals or pedestrian crossings or even an automated response will be needed. Although urban design that supports these technologies for better comfort and safety of road users will be more useful. Narrowing the roads for pedestrian crossings, tabletop crossings, single-level pathways for pedestrians and planning for multi-modal transport will go a long way in making our cities safe and sustainable.