by Sheri Tkacz, Marketing Manager
The day started with a lie.
Gina asked if I got carsick.
I replied “no”.
In my defense, up until this point I’ve never gotten physically sick, but I somehow forgot about my inability to read and write in a moving vehicle. As someone who’s earliest memories are visiting my town’s library, I was always annoyed by the wasted opportunity of long car rides. Thank goodness for the license plate game.
Am I off topic already? How unlike me. Carsick. Right. So for my second journey out into the world beyond my blue cubicle walls, the Transportation Department was kind enough to let me join them on a very large project they are doing for the CTDOT (Connecticut Department of Transportation). As the DOT’s Task-based Traffic and Safety On-call Consultant, Fuss & O’Neill was hired to evaluate horizontal curves throughout central Connecticut. So what does that mean, you might be wondering? I was also curious. So I hopped in the backseat of the company vehicle to find out.
My guides for the day were Marc Mancini, EIT and Gina DePasquale. Marc drives about an hour each day to and from work, so I could think of no one more qualified to be the driver. Gina rode shotgun and I was relegated to the back (also not great for carsickness…foreshadowing anyone?). As we headed out to Route 217 in Middletown, Gina and Marc filled me in on the project.
The DOT had identified 825 curves on state-owned and maintained roads and ramps that would likely benefit from “enhanced signing”. (Side note – that’s 825 just in one district!) “Enhanced signing” is what it sounds like – drivers need to know that they are approaching a curve and that they need to slow down to a predetermined speed. Simply put, it’s about safety. I guess I should mentioned that my blue-walled cubicle is within earshot of the Traffic and Transportation Departments. Since I routinely get to listen (okay, eavesdrop) on their conversations, I wasn’t surprised that this was a safety project. These departments make it their mission to make sure we’re all getting to and from where we need to be (whether in a vehicle, on a bike, or as a pedestrian) in the safest manner possible. I probably don’t tell them enough (or ever) how impressed I am by that, so I’m telling them (and you all) that now.
Off topic again. Shocking. So how does one test a horizontal curve? But wait, what makes a curve “horizontal”? A horizontal curve is the bend in a road between two straight segments of roadway. A curve on an inclined surface (i.e., a hill) is called a “vertical curve”. I like it when they make things simple for the non-technical folks. So for this portion of the project, Marc and Gina were in the field review portion of the project. This means driving each of the curves to determine what speed is appropriate and to determine if additional signage is necessary (or if existing signage is properly placed).
No, we did not drive a bunch of curves at high speeds. If that was the case, this story would have been titled “How I Singlehandedly Removed the New-car Smell from the Prius”. My dynamic driving duo has this cool device called a “ball-bank indicator”. Affixed to the dashboard and balanced before each day of testing (usually at a gas station because the pads that cover the gas tanks are extremely flat), the “BBI” (which I believe will have a minor role in Star Wars Episode 9) registers the overturning force (side friction), measured in degrees, on a vehicle while we drive through the curve at the currently recommended speed. Each curve is driven three times from each direction, for a total of six passes. Maintaining the correct speed is the trickiest part of this. When’s the last time you tried to match the speed limit exactly? It’s harder than you think. Marc used cruise control, but there were a host of complications I would have never thought of. First, modern cars are equipped with sensors that automatically slow you down when the car thinks you are too close to something. Second – squirrels. I love you, you adorable little creatures, but you do have a knack for darting across the road without looking both ways!
So when the team has successfully overcome modern technology and saved our furry friends, Gina records the absolute value (that’s thinking of all numbers as positive for those of you not currently sitting in middle school math class) of the number that the BBI gives us when we’re in the very center of the curve. If the BBI registers anything over 10, it beeps. If a value of 12 or greater is registered, the team would have to drop their speed by 5 mph and redo the field testing until the values registered within established criteria.
I was taking notes in our first pass of our first curve, so my head was down. Gina called out “6.5” – I didn’t even realize we were in a curve at that point. Our map clearly showed a curve, but it didn’t feel like one. It took a pass from the opposite direction for me to really feel the bend in the road – it’s also when I started to feel that fuzziness in my head that generally precedes nausea. I kept this to myself and continued taking notes. The numbers from each pass were pretty similar, but the uneasiness in my stomach was anything but normal.
Gina wasn’t only recording the values; she was also recording things both she and Marc saw and things Marc felt as the driver. I’m as excited about self-driving cars as the next guy, but there is something about “feeling the road” that I’ll miss. There’s a relationship among the car, the driver, and the road that I think we forget about too often in our crazy busy lives. Technology helps us – this isn’t really debatable anymore. But I’m glad that there’s a human component to this project. As cool as the BBI was, as long as humans are doing the driving, it takes a human to really evaluate roads. So Gina and Marc were not only looking to make sure the signage was where the map said it would be, but for other things that affect the driver. Were the trees overgrown and affecting the line of sight? Was the signage itself still in good condition? Was the signage in a position that the average driver would notice it?
Six passes of the same curve, turning around each time, and taking notes was starting to have a real affect. I was thankful when we had collected all of our data from this site. But there was another site to visit. I honestly started wondering if I was going to be able to do this again. We headed to our next curve which, in my extremely non-professional opinion, was a curve! This one had some serious signage. We started our official passes at the recommended speed and I thought – I’m not going to make it. On our second pass – the BBI beeped. On our third pass I knew I needed to get out of the car. Rarely does life answer my requests…this time it did.
This curve had an additional task: detailed field sketches. We got to get out of the car! Oh the fresh air! I didn’t even care that the safety vest I had to put on clashed with the sneakers I was forced to wear – I was just so happy to be out of the back seat! So why were my prayers answered? See, the end game of this project, in addition to safety, is fixing whatever problems are noted. And how will those fixing the problems know where to be and what to do? Accurate maps. I’d like to take a moment to mention that we had an interesting conversation about maps on the way to the site. It was at that point that realized I was in the car with likely the only two people in America under the age of 25 who could still read a map. And why could they read maps? Because they make maps.
So all the data gathered gets entered into computer systems that I don’t pretend to understand, and out come base maps. And if you think it’s actually that easy, I have some magic beans that I think you might be interested in. When Marc isn’t playing the role of driver, he’s usually in front of a computer with a lot of lines and dots on the screen. I never once stopped to think how those lines and dots got there – until we started walking. Accompanying us on our travels was the wheel on a stick that I mentioned in my previous post. Who knew those things were so popular? So why were we measuring? Because we had to sketch the site. Like actually draw it. On paper. With a pen. But here’s where things took an unexpected turn (pun intended).
While Marc was making a sketch of the site (and doing a pretty spectacular job I should mention), Gina was using GIS software that was created in-house for the sole purpose of this project. Dave Cook, a Hydrogeologist and GIS Analyst who works in the Industry and Utilities Business Line, collaborated with Gina to create a special program just for this work. He designed an app that records data she needs and that data goes directly into the GIS programs that create the maps. This allows for seriously accurate data collection and map making. (Wondering why I’m being really vague about this cool GIS stuff? Check back in a few weeks. National GIS Day is November 14th. We’re going to have a whole lot of information for you then!)
So I got to watch this weird “present versus future” scene play out in front of me. While Gina took photos of utility poles and markers, Marc had to hunch over the pad of paper he was drawing on because it had started to rain on us at that point. But the end result was the same. They gathered measurements between points of interest (utilities, signage, road markings, etc.), recorded sign conditions and landmarks, and made some recommendations for the future of this portion of the road. This is the part I like most about these excursions. I love watching the collaboration between technical professionals. There’s a language spoken that is both beyond my grasp and yet somehow understandable at the same time. Watching Gina and Marc work and listening to them analyze the site – I swear, I could do that all day long. They looked at EVERYTHING. There was math, safety analysis, and practical decision making. They were both analytical and personally involved. Because that’s what road safety really is. It’s about analyzing from all angles while thinking about the human factor, which rarely follows logic.
When Marc and Gina had collected all the data they needed, we headed back to the car. Sadly our day was over. We were only doing a half-day shift this particular day. But even with a half-day’s worth of transportation analysis under my belt, I felt safer. Driving is a shared experience. I’m sure we’ve all been warned about defensive driving because you can’t control what other drivers do. But it’s nice to know that there are smart people controlling the design of the roads that all those other drivers use. And that’s going to make driving home today a lot less scary.
Oh, yeah… so I did not get carsick in the strictest sense of the word. But I don’t know why you’d be surprised by this ending. If the story starts off with a lie, you shouldn’t be surprised if it ends with one.
Marc Mancini, EIT, has been a Transportation Engineer with Fuss & O’Neill since graduating from the University of Hartford in 2016. He usually listens to country music on his long drives and may have missed his calling as a cartographer.
Gina DePasquale works part-time at Fuss & O’Neill while attending the University of Hartford. She had the best pun of the day when she mentioned that there was a “learning curve” to data gathering.
Sheri Tkacz is a control freak who doesn’t trust other drivers, but now feels much safer on our shared roads thanks to the safety-conscious team she is fortunate to sit near.