January 26, 2024

HIGHWAY SIGNS

“Are we there yet Dad?” cried Junior from the back seat.  “Only two more exits to go, Son” said the Father, scanning the roadway ahead of him.  Many miles later, Junior was moaning again.  “You said two more exits, not dozens of miles!”

Well, Junior, that’s about to change.  CDOT, pressured by the Feds, is about to renumber all of the exits on the Merritt & Wilbur Cross Parkways and our interstate highways.  No longer will the exits be numbered sequentially but, instead, will reflect their mileage from the NY state line.

This scheme has long been in place on the Garden State Parkway, giving motorists a better sense of their distance to a desired exit.  Mileage-based exit numbers also help first responders find an incident’s location.  And because this renumbering is being done nationwide, it will add uniformity to all signage.

The Parkways’ sign conversions will take place next year followed by renumbering on I-91 (in 2027), I-84 (2028) and I-95 (2029).  When the new exit number signs are in place there will be a smaller sign attached to each indicating the “old” exit number, at least for a couple of years to help drivers adjust.

CDOT is also working with GPS app providers like Google and Waze to get their maps reprogrammed.  All of this work is being paid for with federal money and the work will only take a couple of weeks to be completed on each highway.

Meanwhile, Uncle Sam seems to have lost his sense of humor about changeable interstate traffic safety signs, like the one I saw recently in New Jersey:

“Texting while driving?  Fuhgetaboutit!”   Or “Get your head out of your apps”    “Hands on the wheel, not your meal”… and for our Boston accent fans:  “Use Your Blinkahs!”


Funny?  Attention getting? Or just confusing?  The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) says too often these signs are just distracting so they’re encouraging states to keep it simple and serious.

But when their rule making was announced there was serious blowback.  In Arizona they’ve actually held contests for the best sign-messaging and received thousands of entries.

Among last year’s winners:  “I’m Just a Sign Asking a Driver to Use Turn Signals”, a rather obscure reference to the 1999 movie “Notting Hill”.  Didn’t ‘get it’?  Neither did I, which is exactly the Feds’ point.  While you’re scratching your head about some weird pop culture reference are you really watching the road?

After the recent public outcry, the FHA quickly clarified their rules: a little humor is OK as long as the sign’s intent is clear and the wording concise.

The CDOT seems sober enough in its signage, aside from an occasional congratulatory sign for a winning UConn championship, as if I could care.  And so far there’s been no repeat of the incident awhile back when a hacker took control of a portable variable message sign and changed it to read “Weicker blows”.

The then-Governor and the CDOT were not amused.

 

 

January 19, 2024

BRIGHTLINE'S DARK SIDE

Much has been written in praise of Brightline, the modern, stylish privately owned railroad serving Miami to West Palm Beach to Orlando with fast, comfortable trains.

But the railroad also has the highest death rate of any railroad in the US, having killed 108 people since it began operations in 2017… not its passengers but people crossing the railroad’s tracks.


Last week alone at one grade crossing in Melbourne FL there were two accidents causing three deaths in as many days.  Those “accidents” are under investigation by the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board.  But all indications are these deaths, like the others, were caused by stupidity:  people driving around the crossing gates that lower before the train roars through.

Brightline has not been faulted for these deaths, nor should it be when people foolishly let their impatience exceed their common sense. 

There is a solution, albeit it expensive, protecting people from their own stupidity:  quad gates.  At every grade crossing there would be two gates lowered on each side, blocking both lanes.  Of course, that doesn’t stop pedestrians or people on bicycles.  Sadly, there are also suicides.  But little can be done to prevent those.

Quad Gates - Idiot proof!

A more expensive solution would be what’s called “grade separation”, in effect running the trains on an elevated track so that road traffic can pass underneath.  But that would be a multi-billion dollar expense.

On Brightline’s newest tracks to Orlando grade crossings are all but eliminated, allowing trains to speed along safely at 125 mph.  But along the older, densely populated east coast tracks the trains are limited to 79 mph.  Still, that’s way too fast to “outrun” if you’re in a car or truck.

Public education campaigns don’t seem to have helped, either.  Signage at crossings now warns people of the dangers in English, Spanish and Creole.

What does this mean for our trains in Connecticut?  Well, the main line of Metro-North from NY to New Haven doesn’t have any level grade crossings, though there are plenty of them on the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branch lines.  Also on the Hartford line running north from New Haven to Springfield MA. 

Most grade crossings are equipped with gates and flashing lights, but some lack both, equipped only with “cross buck” signs in the shape of a large X.  They read “stop, look and listen”.

Forgotten in all this discussion is the emotional effect on the railroad engineers involved in these crashes. They see the inevitable coming but can’t stop their trains and must know what’s about to happen.  It takes a long time for engineers to recover from the trauma.

So kudos to Brightline for running such a popular new train service.  But let’s remember that faster trains are also more dangerous.  And when it’s trains vs vehicles, the trains always “win”.

 

 

 

January 12, 2024

SAVING ON AUTO INSURANCE

Are you paying too much for auto insurance?  You’re not alone as rates in Connecticut went up 8% last year and 20% since 2018 thanks to inflation, higher repair costs and riskier driving by too many drivers.

But now there’s a way to lower your rates significantly … if you are willing to let Big Brother monitor your driving habits online via Telematics.  All of the major insurance companies are now employing this technology to better understand their customers’ driving style and reward good drivers. 


When first launched almost 20 years ago this meant you’d have to plug a fob into your car’s OBD (on board diagnostics) connection which would monitor how you drive for a few months.  You’d send the fob back to the insurance company which would analyze the data and “rate” your policy.  How much you drove (distance), how fast you drove and when you drove would determine your premium.

Think of it this way:

If you were shopping for life insurance you’d first have to take a physical exam.  If you were in good health, didn’t smoke and took care of yourself, the life insurance company would charge you less.  But if you’re overweight, have a two-pack-day habit and have high cholesterol, you’re a bigger risk and would be charged more.  So you had an incentive to stay in good health, not only to live longer but pay less for life insurance.

Now drivers can do the same thing… not with the old fob plug-in but just by downloading a smartphone app which monitors your driving.

TrueLane’ is just such an app used by The Hartford, our hometown insurance company and one of the bigger underwriters in the state.  I’ve been experimenting with the app for a few weeks and love it… but still have some concerns.

Each time I drive the TrueLane app knows where I drove, when and how I drove… scoring me on braking, acceleration, cornering, speed and use of my phone while driving.  It gives me a score and dings me for offenses.

The neat thing is it shows on a map where I may have braked too hard or took a corner too fast, teaching me what I did wrong and, hopefully, improving my skills.  My incentive:  a 12 – 25% premium discount if I maintain a score of 90% or better.  So far, driving a Prius where acceleration is already a challenge, I’m scoring about 97%.

But do I want Big Brother knowing this much about my driving?  Do I really want some actuary in Hartford to know where drove and when?  Is my data really private?

Most of my driving is short, local trips.  But what if I drove into midtown Manhattan at rush hour?  Do I get penalized for that?  Or what if I’m driving at 3 am, a very risky time when a lot of drunks are on the road?  Do I get punished for that?

Our phones already know a lot of that information and most of us never think twice about that.  But if you’re a good driver and want to be rewarded for that behavior with lower premiums, one of these programs might be worth checking.

January 06, 2024

ARE EVs IN CONNECTICUT RUNNING OUT OF GAS?

Thinking of getting an EV (electric vehicle) this year?  Well, there’s good news and bad.

As many as 50 new EV models are expected this year.  And with new tax incentives you can get an immediate $7500 credit from the IRS at the dealership without waiting to file your taxes.

But there’s plenty of bad news for EVs, too.

First came the recent rejection of Governor Lamont’s plan to follow California (and other states) in banning the sale in Connecticut of ICE (internal combustion engine) gasoline powered cars after 2035.  Not that the proposal ever came to a public referendum or even a full vote in the legislature.  Rather, the little-know legislature’s Regulation Review Committee was poised to vote on the ban when the Governor counted votes and “pulled the plug”, fearing they would reject his plan.

The Governor still supports the idea and seems headed toward an up or down vote by the General Assembly, though recent polling doesn’t seem to show a lot of public support.

Then came word that the state would no longer be offering free EV charging at our interstate highway service areas.  After all, these charging stations can cost upwards of $100,000 to install and electricity costs in Connecticut are the third highest in the US. So why should EV owners get a literally free ride while the rest of us are paying at the pump?


Even UConn students will be asked to pay for their EV charging at their 50 campus stations across the state.  And municipalities are moving away from free charging too.

Yes, EVs are cleaner.  But they’re still more expensive to buy, even with tax incentives. They’re more costly to insure than regular cars.  Given their batteries, EVs are heavier, causing more damage to our roads… which depend on gasoline taxes (which EV owners don’t pay) for their upkeep.

Depending on where you charge your EV, away from home you’ll pay about 56 cents per kWh, twice the cost of charging at home.  That means doing a fast-charge on, say, a Tesla can cost over $40, about the same as a full tank of gasoline.

Eversource predicts a 70% increase in electricity demand in Connecticut by 2050.  So the question is… where’s the generating capacity going to come from and will there be enough to literally keep the lights on and charge our EVs?

Today some 46% of our electricity is generated using natural gas and 23% of it comes from nuclear power.  Only 3% of Connecticut’s electricity comes from wind power, so a lot is riding on expanding that technology to meet growing demand.

It’s disconcerting to see major Northeast wind-farm deals getting canceled or renegotiated at higher rates as the contractors blame supply chain issues and inflation.  We’re not building new generating facilities fast enough to meet demand, which will only drive up pricing. 

Converting our driving to all-EV is an admirable aspiration but won’t be without its challenges… or costs.

YOU ARE THE TRAFFIC

Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic the other day on I-95 I grumbled to myself “Where is all this traffic coming from?”   And then I remembere...