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MoDOT partnership creates real-time research opportunities

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MoDOT partnership creates real-time research opportunities

Civil engineering doctoral student Yi Hou (left) and senior civil engineering honors student Nathan Helgeson view footage recorded off of MoDOT's feeds from Southeast Missouri. Hou and Helgeson are both student researchers on a project that examined the effectiveness of dynamic message signs in the area.

As a semitrailer driver trucks along the highway toward Illinois, a digital sign ahead reads, “I-57 Detour, I-55 to MO 74, Exit 93.” As the driver ponders which route to take, that decision is captured on one of the Missouri Department of Transportation’s (MoDOT) closed-circuit cameras. And because of a partnership between MoDOT and the University of Missouri College of Engineering, the driver’s response is factored into data that researchers at MU are compiling while sitting in the Transportation Lab on the MU campus.

This long-term, mutually beneficial partnership has enabled engineering students to conduct research for transportation engineering projects using real data on projects ranging from safety studies to traffic behavior evaluations. Insights gained provide crucial decision-making information to MoDOT.

“The partnership with Mizzou has provided MoDOT with a source to seek research ideas that otherwise MoDOT might not be aware,” said Bill Stone, MoDOT research administrator.

Civil and environmental engineering Associate Professor Carlos Sun (left) and Assistant Professor Praveen Edara worked with students on the project using MoDOT's Intelligent Transportation System (ITS).

Student researchers working with civil engineering Associate Professor Carlos Sun and Assistant Professor Praveen Edara also have the option to use results from the completed projects for competitions or publishing. Because the work students performed uses real-life components, this gives the MU students’ work a competitive edge. Moreover, students are able to take the experience with them as they apply for jobs, internships or further education.

“Students are helping us not only by looking at the traffic, but also by hypothesizing,” Sun said.

“Nathan Helgeson, for example, gets to do a project with a real entity from the state,” Sun said. “He also gets class credit.”

Helgeson is senior civil engineering honors student and an undergraduate researcher with a project that looks at the effectiveness of dynamic message signs (DMS).

Additionally, some MU graduates who complete research projects using the partnership with MoDOT later find themselves employed by agency.

“It’s a win-win-win,” Sun said. “There are so many benefits that rise from the research partnership.”

Jon Nelson, a 2003 MU civil engineering graduate who now serves as a traffic management and operations engineer at MoDOT, said the partnership allows MoDOT to gather data the agency would otherwise not have.

“The best thing the partnership does for us is it allows us to tap some other resources,” Nelson said. “It helps us learn what works best, and what doesn’t.”

Stone agreed.

“This partnership has provided some very solid research that was developed collaboratively,” he said.

Nelson pointed out that some projects, such as implementing the new Highway Safety Manual, are often completed and evaluated with the help of researchers outside of the agency.

“Sometimes, we’ll rely on an entity like MU to do some of that research,” he said. “They’re providing a resource to complete a task we may not have the time, manpower, or expertise to do.”


One project students worked on this fall utilized MoDOT’s Intelligent Transportation System (ITS), which encompasses any and all of MoDOT’s technology related to traffic operations and management in the state. Such technology includes, but isn’t limited to traffic observation cameras, sensors and detectors or DMS signs.

DMS signs, which are either permanent or temporary fixtures, alert motorists to information that may affect their travel, including warnings for roadwork, accidents, congestion and even Amber Alerts.

“The signs are advisory messages,” Sun said, indicating that while some motorists may find the signs useful, following the directions posted on them is optional, not mandated in the way a traffic signal would be.

MoDOT received a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to deploy the cameras and signs in the region, Edara said. Researchers at Mizzou are using MoDOT’s traffic cameras to study the signage’s effectiveness in rerouting traffic in a rural area, in this case, during the Interstate 57 Bridge closing over the Mississippi River near Sikeston.

To gauge the effectiveness of the signs, student researchers observed video footage recorded during three different weeks in August, including the Aug. 16 to 18 closure of the I-57 Bridge for the Illinois Department of Transportation to perform repairs on its side of the bridge. During that period, the digital signs were used to reroute passengers on the Missouri side to the bridge crossing on Missouri 74, through Cape Girardeau.

“We needed an extreme example, where [motorists] had no other choice,” Edara said, when discussing why that location was chosen to study.

Edara said the students also looked at recorded footage from the same locations for days when the I-57 bridge was open for travel. Footage was viewed from peak evening hours, from 4 to 6 p.m. and from other times.

Students looked for changes in traffic patterns that occurred during bridge construction using data from the weeks before and after the bridge closure for comparison. In order to better determine the effectiveness of the signs, students also conducted field research.

The rural aspect was a key element in this study. While signs with digital readouts are a frequent sight in urban areas, such as St. Louis and Kansas City, their usage in more rural areas is relatively new.

“Most of these message signs are aimed at urban, high-traffic areas,” Edara said. “With this technology, specifically, we’re looking at rural areas.”

Semitrailers and large cargo trucks and cars were examined as separate groups because of the differences in the dynamics of the drivers and vehicles.

“Truck drivers are more likely to read and follow the signs,” doctoral student Yi Hou said. “So, you could actually see that the truck drivers were watching the signs.”

“Also,” added Helgeson, “trucks are often from out of the area.”

Hou said he travelled to the Cape Girardeau area in August to survey motorists on whether they followed the DMS’ advice.

“We want to correlate what people said to what we observed,” Edara said. “If they really complied versus what they said they did.”

Hou works coordinating collected data that has been processed by undergraduate researchers, including Helgeson and senior civil and environmental engineering students Christopher Adrian and Audrey Freiberger.

“We compared the traffic to the surveys,” Hou said. The survey indicated if there was a measurable compliance among motorists — whether what motorists said is what they actually did. The surveys also provided reasons for motorists’ actions.

And people were generally honest, Hou said.

“We received a lot of positive comments, but also we got some complaints,” he said.

Helgeson said he plans on using the results in a research paper, and possibly in future papers if the project grows to a more in-depth study. Current data is still being analyzed. Results should be finalized in 2012.

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