Group pushes informed travel

If Neil Schuster gets his way, a nationwide system could be watching you park, make U-turns and ignore stop signs. And you would be safer as a result.

"The technology, literally, is there," said Schuster, president of Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA).

Advocacy group members, to the chagrin of privacy proponents, are pushing for a national automobile tracking system that would use a variety of technologies to gather road information and disseminate the data to drivers.

The system, which ITSA members call the Integrated Network of Transportation Information, would gather information from sensors, radio, Global Positioning System devices and the 511 traffic information phone system to report highway problems. It would then send the information in a variety of ways, such as via wireless phones and pagers.

"The integrated network, to us, is how we can collect, combine, interpret and then share by distributing information," Schuster said. "It's almost like the Internet."

Created as a forum for the public and private sectors, ITSA has more than 500 members from the business, government, research, public safety and emergency rescue communities.

Better information about travel, routes and safety could help create a transportation system without injuries, fatalities or delays, Schuster said. Each year, automobile accidents cause 42,000 fatalities and 3 million injuries nationwide.

ITSA officials envision a network built on existing technology. State officials already collect information through sensors and cameras for the 511 system, and they also rely on radio, the Web and road signs, Schuster said. Wireless phone locations can be pinpointed, and GPS units can track vehicles.

A highway system would have privacy safeguards, including bans on collecting personal information, Schuster said.

"Do you care if I'm driving on the Beltway?" he asked. "No, you care about the vehicle. You have given up a lot of privacy with your cell phone, but you don't worry about it."

Privacy advocates are concerned about the car-tracking policy and technologies. Although many of the technologies that ITSA officials have discussed have valid applications, they raise privacy questions, said Linda Ackerman, staff counsel at the PrivacyActivism nonprofit group.

"It presents the threatening possibility of real-time personal tracking by vehicle registration and license plate," Ackerman said. "It can put you at a certain place at a certain time."

Federal Highway Administration officials dismissed any privacy qualms. "There are essentially no privacy issues with this and the research is just in the infancy phase," said Nancy Singer, a Federal Highway Administration spokeswoman. "Transparency and ensuring that consumers have a choice if the technology is available in their vehicle are utmost concerns."

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