Serious traffic accidents and fatalities have fallen dramatically over the past 50 years, but that decline has now plateaued and traffic fatalities remain the eighth leading cause of death around the world.
MicroTraffic, a Winnipeg technology company, is using artificial intelligence to take a different approach to mitigating this on-going public safety issue.
It uses data from existing traffic cameras to identify intersections and roadways where the largest numbers of near misses occur and is helping municipalities leverage that data into creating safer streets.
MicroTraffic, which recently received funding to hire three more people from the province’s Innovation Growth program (which will bring its workforce up to 25), has already gained significant traction. After only a couple of years in the market, its work with around 40 municipalities has resulted in about $225 million in planned infrastructure changes to dangerous intersections.
It has also attracted institutional validation in the form of a partnership with Aviva, the international insurance company.
The unlikely duo have teamed up for an innovative funding program that is offering about $50,000 to five Canadian municipalities to conduct studies on 10 intersections in each city to provide data on intersections where the greatest number of "near-misses" occur. The winning applicants will be expected to pay 25 per cent of the costs up to maximum of $12,500.
"Road infrastructure projects, like replacing a dangerous intersection with an interchange or a roundabout, cost a lot of money," Craig Milligan said. "Knowing that you’re going to save lives and knowing the risks that are there can really help justify that decision."
Milligan is finding that traffic safety professionals are keen to be able to take a pro-active approach rather than have to rely on data from crashes that have already occurred.
"Almost three-quarter of fatalities are happening where they have not happened recently,’ he said. "So you put the money in locations where the fatalities happen and it just happens somewhere else. That is a frustrating approach for everyone working on road safety."
Milligan, who has a PhD and is an expert on road safety engineering, worked as a consultant for several years and he and co-founder Joel Penner conducted about 300 safety improvement studies.
"After doing it for a time, too many people were dying at intersections where we had already done intersection safety improvement plans for," he said. "The way they died was not represented in the historical crash data… and it was clear there were other risk factors, serious ones, at play that were impossible to detect with existing methods."
Milligan does not take credit for the approach, as there is active academic study to detect latent risk factors or the science of surrogate safety.
But Milligan decided to implement those ideas through a computer vision system where the artificial intelligence drives an engine that automatically goes through the video.
"It recognizes what is going on, sees how fast people are going, how close they are to one another and if someone is hitting the brakes sharply," he said. "From those trajectories we construct risk indicators. They have proven to be very effective at precisely identifying risk."
Aviva connected with MicroTraffic as part of the insurance company’s own program to reduce serious traffic injuries called Take Back Our Roads
Catherine Brown, vice-president marketing and corporate social responsibility at Aviva Canada, said, "MicroTraffic’s approach to prevention really fits nicely with our overall platform. Craig and his team are fantastic partners to work with. We wanted to be able to bring the technology to the forefront and make it more accessible to municipalities to focus their infrastructure investments in a way that is looking at prevention and proactive activities."
It is also not lost on the City of Winnipeg, which has just embarked on its own road safety strategic action plan that will use data and public input to set the pace of road safety investment over the next five years and beyond.
Parallel and in conjunction with that, the city is in the middle of a pilot project with MicroTraffic.
Rebecca Peterniak, the community traffic engineer at the City of Winnipeg, said MicroTraffic’s technology provides much more data to work with that traditional traffic analysis.
"Improving road safety data is a really important objective," she said. "We do have collision data which is historic in nature – we have to wait for collisions to happen before we get that information."
She said that using the kind of near-miss analysis that MicroTraffic can provide between all road users -- vehicle, cyclists and pedestrians -- allows them to take a deeper dive to understand what’s causing high accident rates.
"It gives us a deeper understanding of what is going on in the background," she said.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.