Bluetooth can help local traffic flow

Clark County engineers seek improvements using 'discoverable' data from motorists' devices

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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If you want to improve your travel time along some of Clark County’s busier roads, turn your Bluetooth device to “discoverable” mode.

Clark County traffic engineers — along with engineers from the state of Washington and the city of Vancouver — have in place a system that can detect Bluetooth devices in discoverable mode.

The program is being funded primarily through a $540,000 federal grant, with a small match from the local governments.

And with some 900 vehicles traveling through the Andresen corridor during peak travel times, even a small sampling is enough to give information on how quickly cars are moving along the roadways.

“Right now, we are seeing between 3 and 5 percent of traffic broadcasting in discoverable mode,” said Rob Klug, traffic signal operations and engineering lead at Clark County. “From that, we can track MAC addresses and ... get a timestamp of when cars enter and exit the area we are scanning. From there, the next step, we can make traffic signal settings based on (the information).”

Klug explained the process from an interior office at the Clark County Public Service Center. Large computer screens blink out traffic data and display live footage from intersection cameras. When something traffic-related in Clark County breaks, this office is where it starts to get fixed. At times, Klug will run signals manually from his computer to unclog congested areas.

He receives immediate reports from an automated system when cars start to back up beyond expectations.

Klug can talk at length about traffic philosophy and methodology, and he can recommend a few books to read if you’re really interested in how traffic systems have evolved over the years.

But before he explained how this Bluetooth system is being implemented, he stopped for a moment.

“It sounds kind of like Big Brother, right?” Klug said.

The fact of the matter is Bluetooth devices are most commonly used in connection with cellular phones. And it can sound, perhaps, a bit creepy that your local government can see those devices.

Because of that, Klug made it a point to make sure the county wouldn’t end up in a strange spot from day one.

Every Bluetooth device comes with a unique address to identify it. The system that tracks those addresses strips about half of the address off before tracking them. Further, if the system finds a device that isn’t moving through the corridor, it quits tracking it.

The system can’t listen in on your conversations, either.

And if some agency were trying to find a certain device for whatever reason, the county wouldn’t be able to help out.

“We don’t have any way of tracking like that,” Klug said.

And the bottom line is, if you don’t want the system to find your device, simply turn off discoverable mode.

“You can turn it off and just not participate,” Klug said. “But if you want travel times to improve, well, leave it on.”

Bob Hart, project manager at the Regional Transportation Council, is assisting with linking the Bluetooth program between the state, county and city. He said the hope is that enough information will be available by spring 2014 for the agencies to start tweaking traffic signal times.

“The reason for having the pilot project is we want to know if enhanced information can help us make the corridor work better,” Hart said. “We’re testing it now to see if the project is going to give us the information we want. The next part will be if the information can improve the corridor.”