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TDOT cameras give live look at Knoxville interstates

WBIR | May 9, 2005

There's a giant screen inside TDOT's regional headquarters on which anyone would love to watch a football game. It's high resolution, and it has 32 individual monitors. But no one's watching gridiron action; they are watching gridlock.

TDOT's $20 million SmartWay system is a network of 70 cameras, 16 electronic message boards, and 200 speed detectors. The cameras scan 50 miles of interstate, looking for backups.

Eighteen hours a day on weekdays, and 14 hours a day on weekends, people are watching the monitors inside the SmartWay system's nerve center. When they spot a backup on the big screen, they get to work.

"Instantaneously when there's a wreck or obstruction on the interstate we'll get the info out to people and let them know," says Paul Fish, a supervisor for the SmartWay system.

The camera operators can zoom in on the problem, send police and/or a help truck driver to it, post a warning to drivers on one or all of 16 electronic message boards across the city, and broadcast a message on AM radio station 1620, within minutes.

"I don't know. I think maybe there's a little too much of big brother involved in a lot of things," says Nathan Beasley, a painter who drives Knoxville's interstate system almost every day. "But I guess if it helps slow people down and prevents some accidents, it's a good thing."

Beasley's reaction is typical says the statewide director of TDOT's SmartWay system.

"First of all these cameras are not sharp enough to read a license plate, nor are we interested in personal identification of vehicles," says Don Dahlinger. "We train our operators not to zoom in on anything that would identify an individual. They keep the cameras on the interstate. They are not allowed to move off the interstate. So we've got a lot of safeguards for privacy issues."

Nashville has a set of cameras. Knoxville is the second city in the state to get them. TDOT is working on installing them in Memphis later this year, and Chattanooga in 2006.

The state is also posting online pictures from the camera system that update once every minute. They hope people will check the cameras on their commutes before they leave work or home, and plan a route accordingly.

TDOT says the system could increase interstate capacity by 15 percent, and decrease the response time to each incident by 30 minutes.

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