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Public Roads - March/April 2016

March/April 2016
Issue No:
Vol. 79 No. 5
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Internet Watch

SBIR Program Makes Street Crossings Safer

by Lucia Olivera and Amana Hayes

Simply crossing the street has become a dangerous daily activity for many, as drivers and pedestrians alike are increasingly distracted by their hand-held devices. Although the Federal Highway Administration cannot prevent pedestrians from using their phones, the agency is working to make them safer, even when the user is distracted. For example, what if your smartphone could alert you when it is unsafe to cross the street? In that case, a smartphone would be an asset to pedestrian safety, not a detriment.

FHWA, through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program, awarded a contract to Savari, Inc., to develop a smartphone application called SmartCross to interface with traffic signals. Every year, the SBIR Program supports projects, such as the SmartCross app, to develop technological innovation using the highest level of expertise in the small business community throughout the United States.




How the App Works

By sending signals between the pedestrian’s phone and the nearest traffic signal box, the SmartCross app provides an alert to notify pedestrians when it is safe to step into the crosswalk. The application also enables users to request the pedestrian signal. For enhanced safety, the application provides audio, visual, and haptic (or physical, typically vibration) feedback to the user.

The app has different modes for pedestrians, bicyclists, visually impaired individuals, and people in wheelchairs, and can be of immense help to the elderly and the physically impaired. For example, the app can request an extension of pedestrian crosswalk time if a pedestrian has not been able to fully cross the street within the designated time.

In a connected vehicle environment, many drivers also will benefit from this technology. Vehicles equipped with an onboard unit receive notification of a pedestrian in an active crosswalk via an invehicle display. The display also includes the current color of the traffic light and how much time remains before the light changes.

“The app uses GPS to determine the trajectory of the pedestrian and the nearest signal controller,” says James Pol, the technical director of FHWA’s Office of Safety Research and Development. “Because the app continues running in the smartphone’s background even when the app is not open, the user does not have to remember to turn it on in order to benefit from its safety features.”

The SmartCross app is currently under development but will be available to iPhone® and Android™ users.

Expanding Its Use

After the initial SmartCross launch, developers will continue to update the app to leverage the latest technology. For example, developers plan to link the app to work with connected vehicles as use of that technology increases. In addition, the app may be expanded in its use to people with disabilities and older pedestrians and road users. The accessibility community often has high poverty rates, and any improvements to their mobility could make a meaningful difference in their everyday lives. Enhancements to the app will not only be useful to the disabled but also will help to advance new research for accessibility and mobility. Systems developed with accessibility in mind require more rigor to meet the needs of vulnerable users. Overcoming the development challenges for accessibility may lead to design breakthroughs and requirements that could be introduced into other mobility and safety applications.

SmartCross put the majority of its SBIR funding toward the app’s concept development, focus groups, and design development. The contractor responsible for the project also participates in USDOT’s connected vehicles research program, which is developing the capability to identify threats and hazards on the roadway and communicate this information to drivers over wireless networks.

“Through this SBIR project,” says Pol. “We are working toward achieving a vision in which technology brings all of the pieces together--vehicles, infrastructure networks, sensors, intelligence, and people--to bring the future of transportation to fruition.”

For more information, contact Lucia Olivera at

Lucia Olivera is a senior legislative and budget analyst with FHWA’s Office of Corporate Research, Technology, and Innovation Management.

Amana Hayes is a former FHWA intern.