Radio-interrupt shows potential for safety applications

Radio-interrupt technology is opening up new ways to improve worksite safety on Australian roads, but there are plenty more challenges ahead.On average, 135 people died every month on Australian roads between 2000 and 2009, according to data from the Australian Road Deaths Database. The number of road deaths has been in steady decline since then, but that figure is now beginning to level out.

In 2012, the average number of deaths on Australian roads per month was 108. In 2013 it was 99, and in 2014 it was 96. That average has remained steady at 97 deaths per month in the first quarter of 2015.

Alan Hay, Director Strategic Analysis, Road Safety at Boylan Group, says that in order to stop the number of fatalities on Australian roads from levelling off, there must be an emphasis on improving current technologies and practices.

Electronic speed check signs inform drivers of reduced speed limits and provide warning messages as they approach worksites and school zones. However, the large signs take up space and can often create a major hazard for the crews working onsite. Mr. Hay touches upon near-miss data studies, conducted by Downer and Fulton Hogan, assessing the safety of their crews. He explains that one trial assessed the use of these electronic message signs in a worksite environment. The results surmised that many drivers would keep to the reduced speed limit for only 200 metres of a worksite before returning to their original speeds.

Boylan Group conducted similar speed tests at a school zone in Narellan, New South Wales. Initial results showed that 78 per cent of drivers were speeding when they passed through the 40-kilometre-per-hour school zone. One driver reached 106 kilometres per hour through the area. Electronic speed check signs were implemented during the trials. Mr. Hay says that this had the immediate effect of dropping the number of speeding cars below 50 per cent. However, that percentage climbed back up once the signs were removed. “It shows it doesn’t have a long-term impact,” he says.

While this signage has the effect of slowing speeding drivers temporarily, Mr. Hay asserts that, as scientific studies already show, a verbal reinforcement of speed restrictions across the length of a zone has six times the behavioural effect of signage alone (Wogalter et al). That verbal message can be transmitted to a vehicle via radio interruption.

Mr. Hay explains that radio-interrupt technology has come a long way. Thanks to technological advancements, it is now a viable option here in Australia.

“When I first heard about radio-interrupt technology it was nothing more than radio jamming, and that really didn’t appeal at the time,” says Mr. Hay. The idea is that a broadcasted message will override the signal on a vehicle’s radio and relay the message to the driver.

Radio-interrupt technology is already used as a safety measure in tunnels in Australia. A signal can be broadcast from outside the tunnel and then re-broadcast within, thanks to the confines of the area blocking other external signals. It provides verbal guidance over a vehicle’s radio regarding an emergency, incident ahead or a change of road condition. Because a tunnel blocks out other radio signals, this traditional type of radio-interrupt technology is only capable of working within that specific arena. And, as Mr. Hay asserts, you’re already committed to your chosen path in a tunnel and freedom of action is limited.

An advancement in the technology came from tests concerning the safety of train level-crossings in Victoria in 2011. Trucks were outfitted with in-cab units which enabled the vehicle’s radio to receive a verbal message broadcast, warning of an approaching train. While the trials proved successful, the technology is better suited for commercial use as it requires the installation of a receiver unit in the cab.

Mr. Hay explains that the true breakthrough in the technology came when a couple of Australian companies began exploring the idea of broadcasting a signal across a defined zone, directly targeting the audience. A new algorithm allows the technology to calculate the strength of an existing signal in an area and broadcast at a wide enough frequency range and strength to override it. The algorithm can broadcast over 24 radio stations at once, and also determine what signals are blocked or prohibited from being interrupted, and avoid them. “That meant the control of the signal was far more accurate… It’s game-changing,” says Mr. Hay.

He explains that there are numerous benefits for this radio-interrupt technology in a road worksite environment. A single broadcasting unit may be positioned at the entrance of a worksite to notify drivers of the approaching reduced speed zone and along the length of the zone without the need for additional in-car technology other than a working radio. “Because you can cover the defined target area from that one source you can give repeated verbal reinforcement,” says Mr. Hay. “A key factor in modifying driver behaviour,” he adds.

Mr. Hay says that the idea of radio-interrupt technology is already understood by the public due to its use in a tunnel environment. Although it’s technically possible, there are political hurdles to overcome.

“The hard work is already done… There is now a problem with legislation,” he says. Radio-interrupt technology, in its function as a warning system for road works or school zones, is not classed as an emergency broadcast and is not cleared under the Australian Communications and Media Authority Act 2005. Radio-interrupt technology is currently allowed in tunnels only because it doesn’t actually interrupt any signal.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is an independent agency established by the Act and is responsible for the regulation of the communication industries in the country. As such, it is the catalyst to approve radio-interrupt technology’s use in Australia.

However, Mr. Hay explains that in an emergency situation, more obligation rests with the individual states. He says the definition of an emergency is a little grey under the Radiocommunications Act, particularly when used by emergency services or when life is threatened. State authorities can challenge the definition and in turn, help to implement radio-interrupt technology as another preventative safety measure for road-side workers.

Mr. Hay explains that implementing radio-interrupt technology in Australia is limited by the fact that new technology is surpassing legislation. Essentially, the laws around communications technology can’t keep up with the science.

In June, Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull announced that a review of ACMA will take place later this year to address the issue. “That is the best opportunity for us to address it in legislation,” he says.

“[Radio-interrupt technology] has been developed by Australia and it should be used for saving lives in Australia,” says Mr. Hay. It’s early days for the use of radio-interrupt technology at worksites and school zones, but he says testing of the technology in different capacities is taking place in Victoria, Queensland and around the globe in the likes of Sweden, Indonesia and the Middle East.

Mr. Hay says that the trials can be undertaken by industry and states via an ACMC Scientific Licence, which may prove to be the catalyst for legislative change and the development of protocols.

“At the end of the day, it all comes down to the safety of our workforce and community.”

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