Feasibility Study for Animal Detection Driver Warning Systems on Corridor Q/Route 460

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2024-03

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Abstract

Corridor Q, as part of the Appalachian Development Highway System, is a 14-mile-long addition to US-460 in Buchanan County, Virginia that is currently under construction. The diverse large- and medium-sized wildlife in this area present risks for drivers, requiring an exploration of the different animal-vehicle crash (AVC) mitigation technologies available to state departments of transportation (DOTs). In addition to the wildlife typically found in the area, which already poses a threat to drivers (and vice versa), a local herd of elk was reintroduced to this area between 2012 and 2014 and are often seen along this new roadway. Elk pose additional dangers due to their large body size, herding behavior, and many other unique qualities that set them apart from other similar local species, like white-tailed deer. Elk primarily feed on low-growing vegetation such as the grasses typically used during construction to prevent roadside erosion. Soon after construction began, the elk were observed feeding on the grass along Corridor Q and tended to remain in the area. GPS collar data from tagged elk near Corridor Q reflect this observation. AVCs involving elk are costly, averaging around $73,196 in 2020 US dollars, with more recent estimates of $80,771. AVC mitigation efforts along Corridor Q must consider the unique challenges elk will present to drivers upon completion of the roadway.

While many different AVC mitigation techniques are in use today, this project focuses on the feasibility of utilizing animal detection and driver warning systems (AD/DWS) as a cost-effective measure to reduce the risk of AVCs along Corridor Q. AD/DWS combine animal detection (AD) with driver warning (DW) systems to effectively alert drivers of animals near the roadway. ADS are electronic systems that use methods such as tracking motion via camera, thermal imagery, or radar, the breaking of an invisible beam, or perturbation of underground sensors, with the goal of detecting the presence of an animal near the roadway. DWS are signage systems, connected to ADS, that give drivers advanced alerts of animal detection locations.

In this study, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute researched the state of AD/DWS technologies to determine the feasibility for their use on Corridor Q, to review products that are currently available to state DOTs as off-the-shelf solutions, and to identify potential locations for a pilot study site. Interviews with subject matter experts were conducted to help guide this research. To ensure a cost-effective approach, an analysis of the partially completed portion of the roadway, and the activity of the local elk population, was conducted to observe the varying characteristics that could distinguish between areas of higher potential risk of elk-vehicle crashes (EVCs) versus areas of lower risk. In doing so, implementation of AD/DWS can be focused on the areas of higher apparent risk, keeping overall costs down while maximizing the effectiveness of these systems. AD/DWS were considered both as standalone options and in combination with other strategies to assess which method is better.

As this is a new roadway, typical analysis methods used for assessing AVC mitigation strategies, such as historic crash data and traffic volume data, could not be applied. Some elk in the area were collared with GPS tracking devices, allowing for an analysis of their movement around and near the roadway. Additionally, the Virginia DOT (VDOT) provided as-built data of the new roadway, and georeferenced footage was recorded to assist with the analysis.

Ultimately, the roadway was classified into distinct sections where conditions were indicative of a higher risk of EVCs based on an analysis of the data collected for this project. Details on these sections were provided to three vendors with different potential AD/DWS products that VDOT could readily purchase. These vendors provided their assessments and costs of implementing their solutions along Corridor Q.

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animal detection systems, driver warning systems, Corridor Q, wildlife-vehicle conflicts, elk, Virginia Route 460

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