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New technology could prevent 'phantom traffic jams'

Posted at 4:30 AM, Jul 05, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-05 15:46:39-04

It starts with the brake lights, followed by rubbernecking on the freeway. You wonder, "Is that a crash ahead?" As a driver, your assumption would be yes but then the ongoing slowdown stops. 

"...Overreacting, stopping too suddenly," Assistant City of Peoria Traffic Engineer Chris Lemka said. "And that just creates a domino effect that seems like there's a traffic jam ahead when there really is not one." 

This random phenomenon has a name. Experts call it "phantom traffic jams" and it happens all across the country. 

"It's been around since the invention of vehicles and the freeway system," laughed Lemka. 

ABC News recently hit the road with Ford as the company announced that they may have accidentally found the solution to the random problem.

Ford has been implementing adaptive cruise control into their vehicles and put more than 30 vehicles on a test track. They found that these phantom back-ups did not happen when the cars were all further apart and going the same speed. 

Lemka said this could actually be a positive solution. 

"If they [the driver] see a one-vehicle gap or a two-vehicle gap, they shoot for it," Lemka explained. "That's what the adaptive cruise control is going to help with is maintain that gap. Motorists could do that too, but it's more driver behavior. Are they willing to do it?"

ABC15 reached out to ADOT to see if they had a comment on Ford's technology or if they had plans of their own to stop phantom back-ups. They said they were not in a position to speak about the technology at this time. 

But agencies in the West Valley are testing technology of their own. It is not on the freeway, but on their streets — particularly Bell Road. 

Lemka said the city has been working with adaptive technology for a few years with their traffic signals. They have been working to have even more advanced systems in place in just the last few months. 

Their version is different than Ford's, in that it has nothing to do with the individual cars. Instead, Peoria's technology focuses on groups of cars by monitoring them with video detection. 

"The traffic signal...through the controllers are saying, 'OK, at this signal, we're going to push a bunch of cars through,'" Lemka explained. "'This other signal a half a mile away...we know a platoon of cars is going to hit it in so many seconds, so we're going to turn green when that platoon of cars hits that signal." 

The goal is to make your ride as smooth and safe as possible and keep drivers at a reasonable rate of speed. They hope to expand that technology further in the coming years.