Dutch turn to 'loop detectors' to untangle legendary traffic jams

Traffic jams in the Netherlands are legend. Visitors constantly wonder how the Dutch, masters of the two-wheeler and creators of the most extensive network of bicycle paths in the world, somehow have managed to make such a mess of the motorized vehicle.

Now a solution to the problem seems to be near.

At the Ministry of Transport, engineers are busy testing a Dutch-made marvel that, when installed at fixed intervals on the country's major highways, will measure the speed and density of traffic and relay the information to a central computer, which in turn will take action.

This summer, the so-called "loop detector" will be installed for testing on highways near Rotterdam and Utrecht.

The key to the system is the computer. On the basis of information received from thousands of "loop detectors," it will recommend speed limits and signal traffic holdups in one or more lanes. On the advice of the computer, the operator will transmit the recommended speed limits to overhead road signs, close some lanes, open others, slow down certain traffic flows, speed up others, suggest alternate routes, and generally turn chaos into order.

Engineers at the Transport Ministry in The Hague say that the new system of loop detectors buried in the road may increase traffic capacity by as much as 10 percent.

An additional -- perhaps primary -- benefit of the system will be vastly improved motoring safety, the engineers say.

Ministry officials are quick to point out that the Dutch are not completely new to the traffic-control game. The Dutch company Philips -- Europe's leading electronics firm -- has joined with smaller Dutch manufacturers for more than a decade in producing equipment for what is often referred to as "automatic microprocssor traffic control," which allows for the regulation of traffic, including cyclists and pedestrians, at complex intersections.

A specialized control system developed by Philips known as "vehicle tagging" gives priority to emergency vehicles such as ambulances, fire engines, and police cars at intersections. A transmitter installed in the vehicle relays an identification signal to traffic lights when the vehicle reaches a trip mechanism sunk in the road surface.

Even the lawbreaker has not been allowed to escape the long arm of Dutch electronics. A new device installed in traffic lights takes high-speed photos of vehicles running red lights, showing the exact time and date the vehicles commited the offense, as well as license-plate numbers.

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