Solar powered slow traffic traffic sign in a remote location

Lighted Road Sign Management Saves Money and Lives

Road signs are such an ingrained part of our daily commuting lives that they can, ironically, become invisible. In response, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) set out to test lighted road signs. Their goal: reduce accidents by making stop signs at key intersections more conspicuous. They found that adding flashing LEDs to stop signs resulted in a 42% decrease in right-angle crashes. When it comes to important road signs, visibility is key.

Flashing lights have proven to be a critical advancement in sign technology. But when the lights don’t turn on it can be costly. Not only are there safety reductions, but there can also be legal ramifications for drivers. DOTs struggle with how to monitor flashing signs to ensure they’re operating as designed. Many lighted road signs are dispersed over long distances. Dispatching drivers such as police officers, snowplow drivers or DOT staff is costly and time-consuming. However, adding remote monitoring and control through the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) can give DOT operators 24/7 situational awareness from a central location, improving safety and saving thousands every year.

Road signs deliver important information about their specific location. This information is especially important when sign visibility is key or when conditions are changing. Critical signs include information about:

  • Speed limits, stop signs, or other intersection notices
  • Weather conditions such as wet or icy roads
  • Road conditions such as construction zones and damaged roads
  • Traffic congestion, on-ramp metering, or slowdowns

These signs promote safety and need to be in good working order to accomplish their goal. They also need to be operational during weather events or temporary restrictions when drivers can be ticketed if they do not comply. Confirming that signs are operational can be a very expensive logistical challenge.

When it comes to sign technology, innovation happens in simpler ways, often behind the scenes and relates mostly to cost and durability improvements. Flashing lights or beacons have been an important innovation to remote traffic signs. Beyond the MnDOT mentioned above, others have studied their effect to find remarkable safety improvements.

According to Carmanah Traffic, adding beacons to school zone speed limit signs improved driver recognition by nearly 60%. Additionally, the lighted signs reduced speed by 5 to 7 mph on average. This is incredibly significant as speed has a direct correlation to both the occurrence and survivability of pedestrians being struck by cars.

The weakness, however, of this strategy is the maintenance of the signs. A sign with flashing beacons is now a system. There are light bulbs, a power source, and a trigger. If any part of this chain breaks, the lights don’t turn on. While these signs certainly function most of the time, knowing when they don’t is crucial.

To monitor sign condition and on/off state, DOTs can and often do send out drivers to visually inspect each sign. This is very expensive. With newer technology designed for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), signs can be monitored remotely while saving often thousands each year on fuel, time, and productivity.

IIoT devices are capable of transmitting sensor and status data via cellular and satellite networks. They allow remote monitoring and control of devices in harsh conditions. Signs, for example, need hardened electronics to handle weather, dust, and sun while still offering maximum reliability. Connecting these monitoring devices to remote signs transforms sign management from an expensive distraction and chore to a connected, information-rich rich, and centrally managed system.

DOTs who have upgraded to efficient IIoT solutions for sign management have saved thousands per year in fuel, time, and productivity. Instead of running errands to check on often distant signs, DOT staff, police officers, road crews, and plow drivers can instead focus on their work and reduce fuel consumption. They’re safer for it, and the public is safer as it navigates the road system fully informed.

The safety benefits of lighted signs are not only impactful but can be fully realized with proper sign management. When staff are able to remotely identify signs that need attention, repairs can be dispatched quickly at the right time. This allows DOT budgets to work harder for the public.

Gregg Thompson, an IT administrator for the Nevada Department of Transportation, chose to create an IIoT solution to their very remote signs. Initially, the project started with tire chain signs that would automatically begin flashing based on temperature. However, they often had trouble with sign reliability in the field.

The Northeast corner of Nevada is a remote place. Dominated by high deserts, rocky mountain ranges, and isolated valleys, the area is prone to extreme temperature fluctuations. During the winter months, many areas need chains on tires for safe navigation. When the sign is flashing, chains are required by law and drivers will be ticketed if they do not comply. Sign failure in these remote areas meant both an increase in already dangerous driving conditions, but also legal trouble for unaware drivers.

Gregg noticed that to monitor sign functionality, they would ask snowplow drivers and highway patrol officers in the region to keep an eye on the lights – often going far out of their way to check on them in an area roughly the size of West Virginia. When ticketed, some drivers would argue in court that lights were not flashing. Gregg needed both a way to save time and fuel, but also log a verifiable record that lights were functioning.

The answer was in connected signs via IIoT monitoring devices. Gregg needed four critical features to create the ideal solution:

  • Light monitoring – when they’re on and when they’re off
  • Remote control – manually turn lights on and off
  • Failure feedback – did the sensor fail or did the light bulbs fail?
  • Remote power and communications

Working for the DOT, remote power, and communications were the easy part. Solar panels and satellite/cellular communication have long been in the toolbox for managing remote locations. But light monitoring and control with a failure feedback loop was a particular challenge. Gregg found it in IIoT controllers and data loggers.

Pulling from a few device manufacturers, Gregg created a control solution that gave him a dashboard for each sign in his network, with on and off buttons for each light. The primary controller is the X-600M from ControlByWeb. It has a dashboard feature, handles the sensor inputs for monitoring lights, and provides control through its relay modules. It also provides a log file that records when lights are on and when they are off.

Gregg found a third-party program controller to monitor each light bulb, so he could determine when they need to be replaced. The third-party program controller passes data to the X-600M, where the additional information is displayed in a separate dashboard meant for technicians.

Now the central DOT command center has the dashboards to know exactly what their flashing lights are doing and why. They can remotely turn on or off any sign they need. This solution has spread from tire chain to any signs with lights in his region such as temperature-controlled icy roads/bridges to radar-controlled congestion notifications. He now has remote monitoring and control of hundreds of remote flashing signs in some of America’s most remote country.

Gregg estimates the return on investment for NDOT to be in the hundreds of thousands per year for his Northeast corner of the state. Not only is the system relatively simple and affordable, but the fuel savings alone are significant.

IIoT road signs offer substantial value to DOTs and traffic authorities around the world. ControlByWeb remote monitoring and control hardware is ideal for this application and others that improve efficiency and generate massive savings.

As systems integrators, IT professionals, and engineers like Gregg Thompson continue to innovate, new ways to improve our lives are discovered in unexpected places. Managing road signs is a prime example of the many behind-the-scenes problems just waiting for fresh ideas. At ControlByWeb, we’re happy to play a part in solutions to problems large and small through our reliable hardware, easy-to-use interface, and scalable IIoT platform.

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