Monday, June 27, 2011

Traffic devices aren't Big Brother, official assures us

Q: While driving around Blacksburg and other local towns, I have been more aware of little gadgets on the traffic light cables. Some look like tiny spotlights, and others are small boxes. What are these things monitoring? Traffic flow surveillance for safety and light timing, perhaps? I am sure others are wondering who is watching while we are on the roads. These are also in Fairfax County, so is the Virginia Department of Transportation installing more with fewer police cars patrolling? Get the scoop for us.

Dottie Woods, Blacksburg

A: Don't worry, it's not Big Brother watching while you drive.

Blacksburg Public Works Director Kelly Mattingly said the devices you see serve three purposes. Some are vehicle detection cameras to sense the presence of vehicles at intersections. These are used instead of the magnetic loops sometimes cut into the pavement. They signal the traffic light when a car is waiting.

Other devices are emergency pre-emption devices, Mattingly said. These detect oncoming emergency vehicles and give them a green light to proceed safely and quickly, while the cross street gets a red light.

Some of the traffic light devices that you see are wireless transmitters that allow traffic signals to communicate with each other.

And in Blacksburg and Christiansburg, there are 40 infrared cameras installed on traffic lights and along U.S. 460 that are part of a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute "travel time" study.

The cameras are not active right now, because there is not enough funding for the technology needed to communicate the information gathered by the cameras back to the transportation institute, said Hesham Rakha, director of the Center for Sustainable Mobility at the transportation institute.

The cameras are designed to read license plates of passing cars and gather data on how long it takes to travel from one location to another.

Rakha said three digits are scrubbed from each license plate, and the others are encrypted. There is no intention to use the cameras to enforce traffic rules. Rather, the goal is to be able to post travel time information along popular routes to alert drivers to congestion or alternate routes.

Some of the cameras are installed at the Peppers Ferry Road-Franklin Street intersection in Christiansburg, Main Street and Patrick Henry Drive in Blacksburg, and several downtown Blacksburg intersections.

Q: I'm glad to see you're doing some grammar. One bad habit I'm seeing and hearing a lot is "each and every." Ask folks to please use one or the other. It's like wet water, folks. It's redundant.

Joyce Hodges, Salem

A: "Send your reader to the head of the class," said retired Virginia Tech English professor Virgil Cook, a grammar guru.

Cook references "The Elements of Style," by William Strunk and E.B. White, which addresses the issue of redundancy in several places. Rule 17 in the section Elementary Principles of Composition states, "Omit needless words."

"The authors address 'each and every one' in the section Words and Expressions Commonly Misused, calling it 'pitchman's jargon,' " Cook said. "Strunk and White go on to say that the expression should be avoided 'except in dialogue.' "

Got a question? Got an answer? Call Bridget Bradburn at 540-777-6476 or send an email to whatsonyourmind @roanoke.com. Don't forget to provide your full name, its proper spelling and your hometown. Look for Bridget Bradburn's column on Mondays.

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