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Illustration: J. David Thorpe

Access to emergency medical services (EMS) following a serious crash is a long-standing rural safety problem in the United States. Since EMS service is based on population density, rural areas are often underserved, resulting in higher fatality rates per rural mile traveled.

In an effort to improve the effectiveness of EMS response and care coordination in these rural areas, researchers at the University of Minnesota and Claremont Graduate University have conducted a pilot study of the CrashHelp system in central Minnesota. The study, completed in partnership with the Central Minnesota Regional Trauma Advisory Committee, was funded by the Minnesota Departments of Transportation and Health as part of the Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths program.

CrashHelp is a smartphone-based system that allows emergency responders to collect multimedia data about crash victims on-scene and send it directly into emergency rooms. The information gives hospitals advance notification of crash severity and helps them best prepare for a patient’s arrival.

Between July 2012 and June 2013, CrashHelp was implemented and tested at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby, Tri-County Hospital in Wadena, and the ambulance providers that serve these facilities.

During the pilot, more than 20 paramedics used CrashHelp to report on nearly 400 incidents, with overall positive results. Findings indicated that the system helped improve EMS data collection, communication between EMS personnel and the hospitals’ emergency departments, and decision-making by hospital personnel.

For emergency room staff, the information collected using CrashHelp was especially valuable for preregistering patients and assembling medical teams prior to a patient’s arrival—both of which allowed patients to get treated more quickly.

The pilot study also revealed that deeper integration of CrashHelp with existing trauma workflows, EMS policies and procedures, and existing electronic patient care report and health record systems would be essential for the sustained use and value of the system.

Read the full article in the April issue of Catalyst.

MnDOT using new tool to expand living snow fence program

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In Minnesota winter storms, rural landscapes and strong winds often combine to create large snow drifts and blowing snow that can strand motorists and reduce driver visibility. On average, 11 people die in blowing snow conditions in Minnesota every year.

This winter, a MnDOT office in south-central Minnesota is taking action to prevent blowing and drifting snow with the help of a new snow fence payment calculator tool developed by U of M researchers. Living snow fences are plantings of trees, shrubs, grasses, or crops used as windbreaks to control high winds and control drifting snow before it reaches the roadway.

The tool is designed to analyze the benefits and savings of creating living snow fences—such as standing corn rows—in specific locations and compare that with the cost of managing blowing and drifting snow on the roadway 

Using the new web-based version of the snow fence payment calculator, highway officials can easily plug in values such as labor and material costs for treating a specific stretch of roadway, site-specific crash statistics, and the current price of corn. The payment calculator takes those inputs and creates a cost-benefit analysis report that can be used to help set reimbursement rates to landowners for the creation of living snow fences.

This winter, MnDOT will use the payment calculator tool to determine where to add standing corn row snow fences in the area surrounding Gaylord, Minnesota—especially along the State Highway 19, 22, and 111 corridors, where blowing and drifting snow is a frequent problem.

In the future, researchers plan to make this payment calculator available to local Minnesota transportation agencies, as well as transportation agencies in other states and even other countries. 

Read the full article in the November issue of Catalyst.

Warning system aims to alert drivers to potential crashes

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Between 2009 and 2011, 55 percent of Minnesota's fatal intersection crashes occurred at rural two-way-stop intersections. Right-angle crashes, often a result of drivers' inability to recognize a safe gap in traffic, account for most of these. When a curve or hill creates a limited sight distance at the intersection, safety issues are compounded.

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In the latest phase of the project, researchers removed the "When Flashing" label from the warning sign and added LED flashing lights to the existing stop sign.

In research sponsored by the Minnesota Local Road Research Board, a team from the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, working with St. Louis County, developed a low-cost dynamic warning system to improve the safety of these intersections. The ALERT System uses LED flashing signs that are activated when a vehicle is detected approaching the intersection.

In the first phase of the project, the system was installed at a sight-restricted, two-way-stop intersection in Duluth. Drivers on the major road saw signs with the message "Cross Traffic When Flashing," while drivers on the minor road saw "Vehicle Approaching When Flashing." The aim was to help drivers on the minor road determine a sufficient gap to safely complete their turn and to warn drivers on the major road that a vehicle was stopped or entering the intersection from the minor road.

Study results showed that when the alert signs were flashing, vehicle speeds on the major road decreased, drivers on the minor road waited longer before crossing, and vehicle "roll-throughs" of the stop sign were eliminated.

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However, a significant unintended consequence was also observed, says research assistant Husam Ismail. "We discovered that the drivers depend completely on the warning sign, so they're ignoring the stop sign," Ismail says. Consequently, when the alert sign was not flashing, drivers on the minor road may have assumed there was no cross traffic, and the number of roll-throughs increased.

This raises the risk of a crash if the device stops working and could indicate an overdependence on the warning system, Ismail says. Local residents voiced similar concerns, worried that some drivers would no longer obey stop signs or look for oncoming vehicles when the warning signs weren't flashing.

The current phase of the project, ALERT-2, aims to reduce the percentage of roll-throughs on the minor road as well as improve the design for easier maintenance. Besides Ismail, the team for this phase includes UMD professor Taek Kwon and traffic engineer Victor Lund with St. Louis County Public Works.

As part of the new phase, researchers replaced the static stop sign with an LED blinking stop sign and removed the "When Flashing" label under the warning sign. Cameras and detectors captured both before- and after-installation data on roll-throughs at the intersection, which the team expects to analyze by fall 2013.

"We need the vehicle on the minor road to respect the stop sign, whether there's a conflict [present] or not," Ismail says. If the percentage of roll-throughs can be reduced, he adds, the system could significantly improve the safety of rural intersections with severe sight restrictions.

According to Lund, the system shows promise to improve intersection safety by helping drivers make good decisions for turning movements. "The next step is to deploy dozens of these systems so that further research can be completed on developing a crash-reduction factor," Lund says.

Reprinted from CTS Catalyst, July 2013.

New fuel cell prototype could power rural ITS applications

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Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technologies can be used to enhance transportation safety and mobility, but the sensors and communications equipment needed for ITS applications typically require access to electricity. In rural areas, limited access to the power grid can make it challenging to implement ITS devices.

Current solutions for providing power to off-grid locations include battery packs or diesel generators, both of which require constant maintenance to recharge, refuel, or replace. Other alternatives include solar panels and wind turbines, but cost and performance concerns have limited their use.

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"One of the issues with these green power alternatives, such as solar panels, is dependability... especially in the long, cold, and dark Minnesota winters," says Victor Lund, a traffic engineer with St. Louis County Public Works. Until this technology matures, there is a need for other options that can provide confidence in generating power, Lund says.

To provide a more effective and dependable power alternative, researchers from the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) have developed a portable prototype system that uses hydrogen-based fuel cells to generate electricity. The UMD research team was led by chemical engineering associate professor Steven Sternberg, and the project was sponsored by the ITS Institute.

The hydrogen-based fuel cell provides a clean, compact, high-efficiency energy source for an accompanying battery pack, which could be used to operate various ITS devices. The prototype is completely independent of the power grid, works well in cold weather, and requires maintenance only once each week for recharging. The cost of the system is about $7,500, with an additional operating cost of $2,000 per year for fuel materials.

Potential applications include powering variable message signs, dedicated short-range communication technologies, and warning blinkers on traffic signs. According to Lund, the system's applications extend beyond powering ITS devices. For instance, the fuel cells could be used for rural intersection roadway lighting or as a back-up source for traffic signals in case of a power outage.

Reprinted from CTS Catalyst, June 2013.

Photo source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/36521983488@N01/175482261/

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