Drivers on Clark County roads be aware: you’re (most likely) on camera.
There are nearly 100 cameras at various traffic signals in the urban area outside of the city, managed by Clark County Public Works.
But if you’re concerned about privacy or government oversight, Clark County Public Works Transportation Division Manager Rob Klug assures that the county doesn’t record or save the images.
The 53-year-old transportation engineer and his team use the data collected from cameras to improve traffic flow and safety.
“What it does is record every single change in the traffic signal at 1/10th of a second intervals. They’re gathering 400,000 to 600,000 data points a day,” he said. “If someone says, ‘I waited at this intersection too long,’ we can go back and mine that data and figure out why it was occurring.”
Klug has worked for the county for nearly 20 years. He is in charge of what’s called the “bat cave,” a room where all the county’s traffic signal engineers work. It includes six monitors, with plans to add more. The cameras operated by the county will be integrated with the state Department of Transportation’s system to share video images and camera control between both agencies.
During the pandemic, cars at one point nearly disappeared from the cameras. At the county’s 39 count stations – which tally the number of cars on certain roads – transportation planners saw a “50 percent drop in traffic overnight.”
“Now, over the last six to eight months, traffic levels are about 85-90 percent of what they were,” Klug said.
The Columbian caught up with Klug to learn more.
Tell me about the network of traffic cameras that the county manages. How long have they been installed now, and what are some of the changes made as a result of the observations?
We started putting in cameras in 2009. We’ve been adding them, so currently almost every intersection has a pan tilt camera; we don’t record the video because there’s just too much data. What we do is when we get a call from a resident, we’re able to bring up an array of cameras on the video wall and see how it’s working. We’re able to go up and watch simultaneously to see how the detection system is working and how the intersection is working. For example, at the intersection of Northeast 10th Avenue and Northeast 139th Street, we had a situation where residents were saying the eastbound left turn lane wasn’t working properly. We brought up the cameras and watched and realized what was happening: A tree had grown in front of it. The radar was baffled by the tree. We were immediately, from the office, able to go through and pull up the intersection, make changes and make a work order to have the tree removed. We put the signal back without having to walk in the intersection. It allows us to be able to take the people and infrastructure we have and use it more efficiently.
Do you ever hear concerns from residents about privacy or surveillance? How do you address those concerns?
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Yeah, so we completely understood the concerns about the government and the potential we’re watching them. Number one, we don’t record video. There are a few cases where we do record video because we’re looking at something very specific during off hours but that’s very few cases would we record. The second is I’ve been very interested in making sure we’re not looking in people’s backyards. The camera sees everywhere, so just this year we started upgrading our cameras to put in systems that have software with privacy screens put in. For example, we put a camera in at the intersection near Luke Jensen Sports Park. The system had the ability to put in privacy screens and we worked with our crew to block out apartments by the intersection on the southwest corner. The other thing if anyone wants to see what we’re looking at – once per minute the county website posts stills from our cameras. The public can go look and see what we’re looking at. (The website is clark.wa.gov/public-works/traffic-cameras.)
A few years ago, the county received a $50,000 federal grant to install software to collect data on traffic signals. How has that been going?
There’s multi-layers to this. Connected vehicle is a very interesting topic; that’s where cars are talking to each other and ultimately the vehicle and infrastructure will be talking to each other. The industry has been going through a lot to figure out how that’s going to work and relate to the infrastructure. It’s going down a path of dedicated short-range communications radios. The radio is a digital short range communication system that allows very high-speed communication of a very basic safety message going from the infrastructure to the cars. We’ve put in six radio units on the Covington Road corridor as a test bed. Right now, we are part of a national study that is about six agencies in the country and we’re probably the smallest … to figure out how we can use the data and what the cybersecurity needs are to make sure they aren’t spoofed or any entry point for someone to hack into a network. Moving forward, the goal, and this may not happen completely in my career – I’ve got 10 more years until I can retire – is if I’m driving up on an intersection and my car is talking to the signal and the signal is talking to my car – we know by GPS locations where the signal is, the signal knows it’s red and that 10 times per second, communication is giving me dynamic information to say I’m coming around a curve and I need to stop because there’s a red light I may not know about. The steering wheel may vibrate to get my attention.
What are the most problematic traffic areas in Clark County right now?
There’s a couple that we’re working on. One is the intersection of Northeast 119th Street and Northeast 152nd Avenue; we’re working on replacing the traffic signal with a modern roundabout. The other one that’s challenging is the intersection of Northeast 78th Street and Northeast Highway 99. We have collisions there. It’s a very congested location. We’re working with three companies: each claim they can take camera video and run it through their intelligent systems and come up with decisions and explanations for why things are happening. They look at proximity and speed of vehicles and look for close calls. If we can reduce the number of near misses, that should reduce the overall collision rate. We’re doing a “bake off” for their tech – have them look at the exact same intersection at the same time and decide which technology we want.
Is there a future without cars?
So I’m a bit of a geek. My brother and I watched “Star Trek” from the time I was about 5 on. I’ve always liked the idea of a personal transporter, but I don’t think it’s going to happen in my life. The world is changing. One thing I think will be a reality is progression of self-driving cars. And with the increase in cost for maintaining your own personal vehicle, I think we’re going to see a shift toward a shared fleet for many people as opposed to owning their own vehicle. There will be increased use of ride-sharing. We’re going to see increased expansion into self-driving vehicles. Trucking companies are very interested in that. Part of the reason why we’re looking at roadside units is to be able to provide information to that technology as it enhances. Right now, when you look at a car, the autopilot cars – they’re using camera systems and radar systems to try and interpret what’s happening in front of them. What if we were able to tell them what it’s doing every 1/10th of a second and remove those potentials for errors? I think we’re moving toward a system that’s very different than what we have right now.=