Tag Archives: crashes

Do Lower Cost Improvements to Address Congestion Lead to More Crashes?

An analysis of crash data revealed that congestion-related improvements implemented on I-35W in the Twin Cities did not introduce additional safety risks. When installed strategically, improvements like priced dynamic shoulder lanes can alleviate congestion and improve safety for motorists.

“Rather than just conducting a before-and-after analysis of crashes, we also wanted to compare the expected crash rate based on changes in traffic conditions,” said Brian Kary, Freeway Operations Engineer, MnDOT Metro District.

“Probably the most significant finding was that rear-end crash risk shows an inverted U-shaped relation to lane occupancy,” Gary Davis, Professor, University of Minnesota Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering.

Davis served as the study’s principal investigator, and Kary was the technical liaison.

What Was the Need?

A left lane on I-35W marked as a PDSL. The variable message sign shows a diamond shape (signifying a high-occupancy-only lane) and a price of 25 cents.
A PDSL automatically changes status based on traffic conditions. The diamond indicates that it is open as a high-occupancy-only lane.

The Urban Partnership Agreement (UPA) is a federally funded program managed by the Federal Highway Administration to explore ways to reduce congestion on urban freeways. The Twin Cities area was one of four urban areas selected to test several innovative technologies through the UPA. These included high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, engineered revisions to ramps and auxiliary lanes, and a priced dynamic shoulder lane (PDSL) system on segments of the Interstate 35 West (I-35W) corridor. Work on implementing these innovations in the Twin Cities ran from spring 2009 through fall 2010.

MnDOT may decide to incorporate selected innovations, including the conversion of bus-only shoulder lanes to PDSLs, in other corridors. Decision-makers needed to better understand the safety-related benefits associated with the UPA improvements.

What Was Our Goal?

The goal of this project was to compare the incidence of crashes occurring on I-35W before and after implementation of the UPA improvements. Researchers wanted to determine whether any increase in crashes was due to the installation of the PDSLs or to other changes in the transportation network.

What Did We Do?

Researchers started by compiling data files on variables such as traffic volume and lane occupancy, weather conditions, and the presence or absence of UPA improvements for the relevant portions of I-35W. A second set of data was prepared using the Minnesota Crash Mapping Analysis Tool (MnCMAT) to identify crashes that took place on I-35W from 2006 to 2008 and from 2011 to 2013, the three years before and after the UPA project.

Investigators established three regions — HOT, Crosstown and PDSL — and divided each region into sections so that traffic demand and lane geometry would be constant within a section.

The data files were analyzed to determine the likelihood of a rear-end crash based upon the time of day, traffic volume, weather and other conditions.

What Did We Learn?

The analysis indicated that the increase in crashes on the most analyzed sections of I-35W was not likely the result of installation of PDSLs and other UPA improvements. A noted increase in crash rates was instead tied to reconstruction work that removed a bottleneck in the Crosstown Commons area, where I-35W shared right of way with Trunk Highway 62 (TH 62). There were some exceptions, however. Fewer crashes occurred on a section of the freeway south of I-494 during both study periods. An increase in rear-end crash risk north of the Minnesota River was due to weather and traffic conditions. In addition, researchers identified an inverted U-shaped relationship between lane occupancy and crash risk along several sections of the I-35W study area.

The findings supported the contention that PDSLs, when installed strategically, are safe and can provide transportation departments with an additional resource for managing congestion and improving traffic conditions along the Twin Cities freeway network.

Installation of PDSLs in the corridor did decrease the bottleneck at TH 62, but the improvement literally moved the problem down the road by creating a new bottleneck close to downtown Minneapolis.

From the MnCMAT database, the research team found 5,545 records of various types of crashes that took place from the beginning of I-35W to the I-35W/I-94 junction during the two three-year study periods. Rear-end crashes were by far the most prevalent type of crash, with 1,513 recorded before the UPA improvements and 1,657 during the three subsequent years.

Researchers encountered some challenges in preparing the data files for analysis. Careful screening of loop detector data was needed to identify questionable statistics and required a review of individual crash reports to verify crash locations.

What’s Next?

Through this research, MnDOT gained valuable insights into the impact of the UPA improvements on crash incidents along areas studied on the I-35W corridor. The methodology employed supports using PDSLs on other sections of the freeway network.


This post pertains to Report 2017-22, “Safety Impacts of the I-35W Improvements Done Under Minnesota’s Urban Partnership Agreement (UPA) Project,” published in June 2017.

What those signs over the freeway are actually telling you

Two years ago, MnDOT installed a series of electronic speed limit advisory signs over Interstate 94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Variable Speed Limit (VSL) system is designed to reduce congestion and help prevent crashes by recommending lower speed limits to motorists during periods of high traffic.

The new technology has worked in other places, including China and Germany. In Minnesota, a similar VSL system on I-35W reportedly had moderate benefits in reducing the total amount of congestion during the morning commute south of Minneapolis.

Although the verdict on I-94 congestion is still pending,  a newly released study has found that the new system has not made a measurable impact so far on crashes in an accident-prone stretch of freeway in downtown Minneapolis. Why not?

University of Minnesota researcher John Hourdos has a few theories.

One is a simple time  lag in the congestion reporting system. Another is a requirement that all lanes display the same speed limit, which he said causes confusion when only one lane is actually congested. The complexity of the I-94 commons also appears to be beyond what the VSL system was designed to do. And according to Hourdos, one of the most significant problems is the driving public simply doesn’t understand what the signs are telling them.

“People do not know what the system really does,” Hourdos said. “There hasn’t been much education on it other than a couple of news articles over the years. And when they try to decipher it on their own they get even more confused.”

The I-94 Commons area has a major bottleneck where the I-35W northbound ramp merges with I-94 westbound (between Cedar Avenue and 11th Avenue). Vertical red lines indicate locations of gantries that display variable speed limit advisories.
The I-94 Commons area has a major bottleneck where the I-35W northbound ramp merges with I-94 westbound (between Cedar Avenue and 11th Avenue). Vertical red lines indicate locations of gantries that display variable speed limit advisories.

The advisory speed limits are posted in response to varying traffic conditions. As vehicles approach the commons area, the system measures speeds at the bottlenecks. If the traffic slows, the system transmits a reduced advisory speed to drivers approximately 1.5 miles upstream from the location of the slow-down.

Hourdos said many motorists mistakenly believe the speed displayed on the signs is either a reflection of the speed on the current stretch of highway or an indication of the speeds on the highway ahead, rather than a suggested speed for them to follow.

The requirement to display the same speed limit on all signs also compounds the problem, Hourdos said, because when drivers see that the slowdown is only occurring in certain lanes they tend to ignore the signs altogether.

“In the lane that is congested, the real speeds drop much faster than what the VSL system can respond to, reducing the functionality of the system to the eyes of the drivers,” Hourdos said, “while on the fast-moving lanes, it seems the system has no purpose at all.”

From downtown Minneapolis rooftops, traffic monitoring cameras detect shockwaves on Interstate 94.
Data was primarily collected via cameras at the I-94 Commons’ Third Avenue Field station, overlooking an area with a particularly high crash rate.

So is the I-94 VSL system useless? Not necessarily. For one, the new study didn’t measure the system’s impact on congestion — only its ability to reduce crashes on a small portion of I-94. Moreover, the area in question, the I-94 Commons, is fairly unique, having two major bottlenecks, the highest crash rate in the state (nearly one every other day), and five hours of congestion during the afternoon rush hour alone.

“The VSL system was designed for implementation on any freeway and may not have been well-suited for the I-94 Commons area, which is a very complex corridor with high volume weaves and significant shockwave activity,” said MnDOT Freeway Operations Engineer Brian Kary.

Generally speaking, the VSL system was designed to identify slow traffic ahead of where free-flowing traffic is approaching slow or stopped traffic.

“The crash problems within the commons are caused by speed differentials between lanes and shockwave activity within the congestion,” Hourdos said. “The current VSL system was not developed to handle these types of conditions.”

MnDOT and the researchers aren’t giving up, either. A new project is starting later this year to develop and deploy a queue warning system specifically for this high-crash rate location.

Further resources

Investigation of the Impact of the I-94 ATM System on the Safety of the I-94 Commons High Crash Area (PDF), May 2014

Improving Traffic Management on Minnesota Freeways (PDF), May 2012