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‘Smart’ signals clear way for emergency vehicles, ease traffic

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Next year, when a fire truck comes screaming down State Road 135 at rush hour, 11 stoplights will help firefighters get to emergencies faster without slowing down your commute.

A total of 18 intersections along State Road 135, State Road 37, Morgantown Road and Smith Valley Road will get new equipment added to traffic lights to make them turn green for fire trucks. Using GPS, the lights will know when an emergency vehicle is coming and will change the signal to clear traffic and allow for the vehicles to get through intersections smoothly.

The new equipment will help ease traffic at busy intersections where fire trucks need to get through and make it safer and easier because they won’t have to weave through cars. Marion County uses the technology, and at least one intersection in Johnson County — outside the White River Township Fire Department station at State Road 37 and Smith Valley Road — has had the GPS equipment since 2001. Greenwood also plans on installing their own.

Early next year, the White River Township Fire Department plans to spend up to $131,000 on the new technology from money that was budgeted but not spent this year on insurance and equipment, Fire Chief Jeremy Pell said. The installation costs for the equipment are included in next year’s budget.

The equipment will be installed at intersections along State Road 135 from County Line Road to Stones Crossing Road, and on State Road 37 between Smith Valley Road and County Line Road. Morgantown Road will have the new smart lights between Smith Valley Road and Stones Crossing Road, and the intersection at Smith Valley Road and Peterman Road will have the new technology as well.

Two of the roads where the smart stoplights will be installed are state roads under the control of the Indiana Department of Transportation. The state will partner with local fire departments who want to install smart lights and will sometimes help fund them, department of transportation spokesman Will Wingfield said. In most cases, though, funding is left up to the local agencies, he said.

The new signals will make the roads safer for both commuters and emergency workers, Pell said. When an intersection gets backed up for a red light, drivers have to try to find a way to make room for emergency vehicles to get through as they approach. This can be dangerous because it means that firefighters can’t respond as quickly, and will have to weave their way through traffic to try to get through, he said.

If the lights automatically turn green, drivers at the intersection will have time to move forward and to the right so they are not in the way of a fire truck, Pell said. The change will help ease traffic backups so that emergency vehicles can get through, he said.

Each emergency vehicle at the department will be equipped with a GPS unit that is connected to the vehicle’s emergency lights. When the lights go on, the GPS unit knows to start turning traffic signals green. The device can tell when a turn signal in the vehicle is on and will start changing lights in the direction they intend to turn, Pell said. The GPS can start to change signals up to two intersections ahead of the vehicle, he said.

While Greenwood does not have any of the lights, the Greenwood Fire Department is looking to find grant money to purchase the signals, Fire Chief James Sipes. Once the department has the money, officials will look install the technology at the intersections where accidents are most likely to occur, he said. Greenwood would use the same technology as White River, so the two departments would be able to control signals in both the city and county.

The new equipment will become more important with more development, Pell said. With a new Walmart planned on State Road 135, traffic could increase in the next few years and make it more difficult for emergency vehicles to get through backed up intersections, he said.

The smart lights will also help residents be more aware when an emergency vehicle is approaching. A small white light on top of the traffic signal will turn on when an emergency vehicle is headed their way, and drivers can begin to move over when they see the light go on, Pell said.

The department will encourage police departments and ambulance companies to buy GPS trackers for their vehicles that trigger the lights, so that when they are in the area they will be able to clear traffic as well, he said.

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