Coming soon on the Net: live traffic jams

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Live pictures of traffic jams and details of roadworks from the motorway network may be available on the Internet from next year.

The data would be collected from roadside cameras and sensors in motorways and connecting roads, and made available through a government computer connected to the World Wide Web, which can distribute text, pictures, sound and video. "Updates on congestion and probably journey times could be available directly in people's homes," said Nic Hopkins of the Central Computing and Telecommunications Agency, which is co-ordinating the project with the Department of Transport.

Information from the sensors and cameras is used by traffic organisations such as the AA and RAC to provide bulletins to the media.

The experiment, due to go online early in 1996, would be similar to one which has been running in San Diego in California for the past year. There, sensors provide data on the speed and number of cars passing 200 designated points. This is collated into a map which is updated every five minutes on the World Wide Web. The data can be found at the Internet address /sd/sd transnet.html, where it is available free to the public. Aerial photos are regularly updated, while the site also offers information on roadworks, public transport and the weather.

The British version will be more modest at first because the Government, which is investigating the security implications of the experiment, is unsure how much data is collected and to what extent it is interpreted before being passed on. "The public does get this information eventually, but it's in the form of occasional news reports," said one of the staff working on the project. "But the key point is that at present, if you want to know what's happening now, you can't. You have to wait for when the radio station chooses to tell you."

Although commercial systems offer live traffic information, they are most useful to drivers on the road. The Ordnance Survey is working with a number of companies to provide traffic monitoring systems. One in Southampton monitors congestion and resets traffic lights so that buses run on time.

Some aspects of traffic information might be easy to provide. "We don't think it would be difficult to do pictures of the M25," one team member said. "We'd just have the same picture of a traffic jam and stick that there."