Scientists Aim to Eliminate Phantom Traffic Jams

Accidents and weather conditions are often to blame for heavy traffic, but many times there is no apparent reason for the delays. Small disturbances like hitting the brakes too hard or tailgating can lead to phantom traffic jams, but now mathematicians are using their skills to try to understand and solve the problem.

They're called phantom traffic jams — highway congestion that appears for no apparent reason. But now a team of mathematicians is trying to get to the root of the problem.

Jean Christophe Nave, Ph.D., a mathematician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is part of a team that discovered the mathematics behind phantom jams is similar to the fluid mechanics equations that explain the waves created during an explosion. By applying this information to a circular road way model, researchers realized driver error is not always the culprit.

"You could put robots or computers driving those cars and you would still see those traffic jams," Nave said.

Traffic speed and how many cars are on the road, or density, are used to calculate the conditions of these jams. Understanding how they form could someday help design better roadways.

"The second part of it is to explain what we have now and try to advocate solutions such as to put speed sensors on the road," Nave said.

The sensors could someday alert commuters to the speed limits on specific stretches of the road to keep the traffic flowing and to get you where you're going on time.

The mathematical model can also help determine safe speed limits and identify stretches of road where accidents are most likely to happen.

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