As the van looped around the intersection at Hillen Road and Argonne Drive, its onboard lidar unit — think radar but fancier — warned the driver to watch out for cyclists in the nearby bike lane. The driver approached the intersection with Cold Spring Lane to the north as Ali Ansariyar, a graduate student at Morgan State University, clicked through various data tabs on a tablet that showed readings from the lidar in real time.

“We can see SPAT messages, including the phasing and timing of the traffic signal,” said Ansariyar. He was showing a vanload of transportation officials and traffic engineers how the van’s unit could communicate with the lidar posted at the intersection.

You may know Waze, the popular mobile navigation application that can notify drivers of traffic information — a stopped car on the shoulder, an accident ahead — that other users post. Now imagine every car around you, and even the traffic lights, using a similar interface but communicating with one another in real time. The intersection pings you about jaywalkers entering the road up ahead; the traffic light holds on red because it notices an EMS vehicle coming; a driver is speeding towards an intersection and doesn’t show signs of braking, so the car slows itself down.

That reality is closer than you may think. And the students and professors at Morgan State University testing some of that technology believe the implications for roadway safety could be groundbreaking.

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“Vehicles are becoming more and more safe with adding those ADAS — advanced driver assistance [systems], you have cameras ... you have lane assist, all that stuff the new cars have,” said Dr. Mansoureh Jeihani, a professor and director of the National Transportation Center at Morgan State University.

But despite all those features, crashes and deaths are still on the rise, Jeihani points out. The usual suspects, like speeding and aggressive driving, are to blame, she said. But distracted driving has quickly become a leading cause of crashes.

In Maryland, distracted driving was involved in roughly 48% of all roadway crashes from 2018 to 2022, according to statistics from the state’s Zero Death’s dataset. Roadway fatalities have been rising since the pandemic. State transportation officials have sounded the alarm that Maryland could reach 600 roadway deaths in 2023 for the first time in more than a decade.

So Jeihani and her students’ work is all the more important, she said. She is a member of Maryland’s Connected and Automated Vehicles working group, established by the state Department of Transportation in 2015 to begin planning how the state could implement emerging technologies. She invited her colleagues to Morgan State’s campus recently so they could see some of that technology in action.

Two men stand in front of a laptop resting on a brown desk and talk to other people standing around them.
Ali Ansariyar and Al Taher, graduate students at Morgan State University, demonstrate how lidar can help tackle safety issues at intersections to members of the Maryland Connected and Autonomous Vehicles working group at Morgan State’s campus on Oct. 24. (Daniel Zawodny)

Ansariyar was demonstrating ‘static safety messages’ to the working group with the van’s onboard lidar. Similar to alerts on navigation software like Waze, these messages are fastened to a point in space and programed to sound off once a vehicle enters its surroundings — like a fancier version of a roadside sign.

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The future is with “dynamic safety messages,” explained Ali Taher, a Ph.D. candidate at Morgan State studying connected vehicles. Much like those signs that post the speed limit near a work zone but can also tell a driver how fast they are going, dynamic infrastructure powered by lidar can read the surroundings and churn out safety messages. A roadside unit could scan the intersection for pedestrians and send messages through car speakers that jaywalkers are up ahead, for example.

But how quickly this technology gets on the road depends on how much governments and car manufacturers decide to invest in it, Taher said. “But we are doing a good job on the science side. … I hope to get there in maybe five years.”

Planners and engineers can use all this data to influence infrastructure changes that could make roads safer, Jeihani and her students say.

Ansariyar, a Ph.D. candidate whose research focuses mostly on pedestrian safety, said they can analyze all near conflicts between cars and people crossing the street at a lidar-equipped intersection. Combined with heat maps that can show where jaywalkers typically cross the road, they can request road modifications, like median fences that funnel pedestrians to the intersection and physical barriers that protect pedestrians from cars that cut a turn too sharply.

“The Cold Spring and Hillen Road intersection is one of the highest rate of conflicts at intersections in Baltimore City. There are a lot of students from Morgan State University that pass every day at different time intervals. We need to improve safety for this type of vulnerable road users,” said Ansariyar.

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Those infrastructure changes often show up as road diets, modifications meant to make it harder for cars to speed or drive aggressively. Road diets are popping up more and more around the country as officials look to get both pedestrian and driver deaths trending back down.

Traffic calming takes many forms, including any number of items from the road diet menu of things like reducing and narrowing travel lanes, extending curbs further into intersections, and much more.

Baltimore’s Department of Transportation recently implemented a road diet on 28th Street that has helped scores of Remington residents feel safer walking in their neighborhood, as well as many intersection changes across the entire city.

As indicated by recently unveiled development renderings, downtown may one day get the biggest road diet the city has yet seen. Images for the future of Harborplace show dramatic changes to East Pratt and Light streets that would cut down on travel lanes to make way for pedestrians and transit.

Image of a redesigned Harborplace in downtown Baltimore. (MCB Real Estate)