Virginia Transportation Safety

The Heimdall Project Prolog: Origins of the Bifrost

Introduction: The Heimdall Project – In the mythical days of Odin and Thor, Heimdall was the Aesir Guardian of the Realm who controlled all traffic on the Bifröst — The intergalactic bridge between mortals in Midgard and the Asgardians.

When his extraordinary sensory powers detected signs of impending danger, Heimdall would blow the Gjallarhorn to send a warning signal to alert all of Asgard. As a mythological traffic cop, Heimdall routed the Aesir and Vanir across the Bifröst  (aka, the Rainbow Bridge) to and from regular collaborations under the tree Yggdrasil — Essentially the transportation infrastructure connecting the Nine Realms.

The descriptions of Heimdall and his management of traffic on the Bifröst, within the infrastructure provided by Yggdrasil, originated in the Prose Edda,  believed to have been compiled by Icelandic scholar/historian Snorri Sturluson around the year 1220. Images by Marvel Studios and the producers of the movie Thor.

Admittedly, Heimdall, the Bifröst and Yggdrasil clearly belong to 13th century Norse Mythology, but the Author believes that there are practical applications to 21st century traffic safety as well — After all, couldn’t Heimdall’s Gjallarhorn be considered a predecessor to today’s emergency sirens, car horns and police whistles?

While Heimdall could also be considered an ancient Nordic Command and Control (C2) Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) system,  a modern day version of the legendary guardian might ask the following questions:

What factors are involved in accident fatalities?
– Does alcohol use have a significant effect?
– Do external distractions enhance that effect?

How can we identify threats and mitigate danger?

Who is responsible to do this?

What kinds of systems can help?

Why take the time to think about these things?? — Because commuters in the 21st Century . . . whether via car, van pool, bus, subway, light rail or train . . .  need to formulate their own answers to these questions and take ownership in solving many of the problems that dominate the safety of today’s transportation  systems. Pedestrian, motorcycle and bicycle safety are also impacted by other traffic, and these must be considered in the overall transportation safety picture as well.

The Author, who is a native Virginian with Norse heritage, has had plenty of time to think about Transportation Safety over the last five years. From 2011 to 2016, his ~ 2.5 hour daily  100 mile round-trip commute by car between the bottom of the DC Beltway to the bottom of the Baltimore Beltway, has totaled approximately 125,000 miles during about 3,125 hours commuting — that’s nearly 80 business weeks behind the wheel — so he does have some personal experience enduring long commutes and traffic jams on the transportation systems in Virginia! The interactive map below is a live feed from Google traffic maps and shows the shortest commute options to the author’s office if one were to leave right now.

There are three primary routes from Virginia to Maryland, and all 3 choices include travel on the Virginia and Maryland portions of the DC Beltway (I-495/I-95) as well as making Virginia-Maryland river crossings at either the Woodrow Wilson Bridge or the American Legion Bridge at Cabin John. When going up through DC on  I-395 , one must first cross the Potomac River on the 14th Street Bridge & then the Anacostia River on the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge to get to the Baltimore-Washington (BW) Parkway.

The map above is an interactive map built in CartoDB, which simply shows the choice of river crossings that the Author would have to make on a daily basis to determine the least stressful route to work. There have been many major river crossings over the course of daily commutes between VA and MD, to include the Potomac, Anacostia, and Patuxent. Approaching each bridge, there is usually a decrease in speed, resulting in a traffic choke point.  These effects become worse when there is maintenance or construction on the bridge — A frequent occurrence in this area.

An interesting twist to note here is that  the BW Parkway falls under the exclusive jurisdiction of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS), just as does the George Washington Parkway and Arlington Memorial Bridge. This NPS jurisdiction presents its own slate of challenges with respect to law enforcement (i.e., Park Police), Operations and Maintenance (O&M).

Since the Arlington Memorial Bridge, the BW Parkway and GW Parkway are exclusively supported by NPS O&M Funding (and not state transportation funds), proper maintenance of these transportation systems regularly falls victim to the perennial Federal Budget battles.

All of us who travel in the VA-MD-DC region are aware of both (A) the challenges that are faced in navigating a metropolitan area, and (B) the options that an urban infrastructure offers to commuters.  None of this  sustainable transportation infrastructure is free, and all of it requires periodic O&M repairs and upgrades.

What is the most efficient way to ensure that these transportation systems are safely operated and maintained? Who determines what is safe enough?

Do we place the burden of fixing these problems on the Public Sector, the Private Sector,  or some combination of the two — Such as the High Occupancy Vehicle/ Toll (HOV/HOT) Lanes projects?

How do we move citizens to not only take  action on these solutions but to agree to pay for them as well  (through increased taxes or User Fees such as tolls conveniently paid through the use of Flex Passes)?

Can Virginia safely afford to not have gasoline or car taxes to help pay for expected infrastructure maintenances?

Many point to increased deployment of law enforcement or the greater use of  Mass-Transit . . . in the form of subways, trolleys, commuter trains, buses, van pools, etc . . . as ways to take dangerous drivers off of the roads.

While these measures indeed help to somewhat reduce fatalities, additional highway patrols come with increased taxes and public transportation arguably has its own host of not-entirely-unique challenges: Weather, poor maintenance, aging infrastructure, fatigued/distracted operators and even terrorism can all impact mass-transit  as badly as these external factors impact the operation of Privately Owned Vehicles (POV)s.

The project is divided into the following sections:

  1. Prolog: Origins of the Bifrost
  2. Driver Fatalities
  3. Pedestrian Fatalities
  4. Public Transportation
  5. Innovative Technologies
  6. The Bridge to Safety
  7. Rail Side-Track
  8. Epilog: Motivation for the Heimdall Project

Visiting the Well of Knowledge at the base of Yggdrasil (depicted above), Heimdall might suggest that mortals could use some of the self-service Big Data tools and applications that we have developed here in Midgard to understand the problems and agree on solutions.  Below is a high-level representation of the total number of accidents per year from 2010-2015.  As you can see by glancing at the data, while the numbers over the last six years have been fairly consistent, there were more than 125,000 accidents recorded in the Commonwealth last year alone!

In the next chapter on car accidents, we’ll talk about drilling into that deep well of data available in one of these Big Data tools from the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) Crash Analysis Tool (CAT)-Version 8_2.

Driver Fatalities Hazards Posed by Traffic and Alcohol

Let’s take advantage of the excellent online data analysis tool that VDOT has made available to the public at no additional charge beyond the funding already in the Commonwealth’s Annual Budget. Note that the summary table below is a very high-level visualization produced by Tableau (described later) directly from six years of accident data that has been entered into VDOT’s CAT V8_2. This data will be broken-down into more easily digested pieces, so this is simply a massive top-down data visualization for reference only.

This detailed chart illustrates the summary data for the 728,074 recorded traffic accidents over six years, and breaks them out by month and year. Given that there are 164 individual data columns per accident report, that equates to about 119,404,136 separate data elements.

By breaking the data analysis cases into more manageable subsets, the results should be readily obvious. To make visualization of the data more easily digestible, the following analyses deal only with accidents where a fatality resulted.

The ten deadliest monthsover the last six years are shown here. It is interesting to note that, while one might reasonably hypothesize that the deadliest months to drive would be when there is a higher likelihood of snow and ice on the road, this misconception is not supported at all by the data in CAT8_2!

The data provided by VDOT clearly reveals that six of the ten deadliest months in the Commonwealth are found when freezing temperatures are practically non-existent in this area — That was an unexpected result for the Author — Furthermore, eight of the top ten months experience freezing temperatures only on extremely rare occasions, and that was true even before Virginians ever heard the term Global Warming!

Heimdall would point-out that even the Bifrost is not greatly affected by weather, so he wouldn’t find these results surprising. However, he might caution that Driving Under the Influence (DUI) might be good area to investigate. Throughout the ages, humans have over-indulged and exhibited impaired judgement.

First, we will establish the total fatality baseline and present it interactively through Tableau so that each of the accident reports can be viewed by clicking on the plotted locations on the map below.

All Reported  2010-2015  Fatal Accidents Plotted on a Map of the Commonwealth (4,156 deaths)

At the onset of this research project, the Author had indeed believed that he would find data to support the hypothesis that adverse weather has a significantly negative impact on accident rates in Virginia. The Exploratory Phase of this investigation did not yield data to support this hypothesis. Hence, the Author began to look at other attributes in the CAT8_2 dataset which might provide tools to investigate and identify significant trends which have relevance to transportation safety (see a capture of the CAT_2 menu below).




In exploring the dataset and experimenting with combinations of attributes, the Author discovered that by manipulating both the “Alcohol” and “Pedestrian” attributes yielded interesting results worth investigating and explaining (Readers can access the CAT8_2 menu at!/publish-confirm to explore for themselves) The Explanatory Phase of this research begins with the display below.

Here is the summary data in a tabular format which is also searchable so that the reader can explore the displayed data at will.

Fatal  Motor Vehicle Accidents where Alcohol was Involved (1,103 Deaths = 26% of All Fatal Traffic Accidents)

Below is a simple graphical representation of the data described above.

This data plot clearly illustrates that fatalities where alcohol was involved equate to about 26% of the total. Again, the result is a little surprising given the attention that drunk driving has been given in the media for some time.  One explanation might be that public awareness campaigns such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have been very successful over the last few decades.

Similar Public Service Announcement (PSA) campaigns which have been very effectively supported by the National Advertising Council, continue to be critical in raising awareness about Automobiles and Pedestrian Safety. 

Pedestrian Fatalities Fatal Accidents

In the previous section, we explored how many total accidents occurred in the Commonwealth over the six year period from 2010 – 2015, with a special emphasis on fatal accidents. That number was 728,074 recorded traffic accidents total, with 4,155 of those accidents causing a fatality.

Again, with 164 individual data columns per accident report, that equates to about 119,404,136 separate data elements for total accidents and 681,420 data elements for just ones resulting in a fatality. In this section we’ll scope in even tighter and look at fatal accidents where a pedestrian was involved.

Total Fatal Motor Vehicle vs. Pedestrian Accidents (499 Deaths)

PSAs such as “Be Street Smart” have been particularly effective at raising public awareness among drivers regarding Pedestrian Safety.

Some Urban areas such as Washington, DC have taken a slightly different track by issuing warnings that police will ticket pedestrians who do not use crosswalks when crossing the street (i.e., jaywalking). While this may help to reduce incidents, few would dispute that drivers of motor vehicles bear the primary responsibility for avoiding all obstacles on the road (to include pedestrians and animals).

Be Steet Smart!

Fatal Accidents Involving a Pedestrian and Alcohol  (227 Deaths out of 499 Total Fatal Pedestrian Accidents) are shown below — quite a significant result that deserves further analysis!

Heimdall would point out that while the number of pedestrian fatalities was fairly small when compared to the number of total fatalities, in nearly half (45%) of fatal accidents involving a pedestrian, alcohol was indeed a factor!

Caution on the part of both drivers and pedestrians should help reduce pedestrian accidents, but the impact of alcohol is inescapable! A number of drinkers choose to walk home (when possible) rather than drive drunk. While on the surface, this approach might sound safer, there are anecdotal observations that seem to indicate that is safer to drive rather than walk under the influence. While this alleged phenomenon could be interesting for researchers to explore in the future, there is the neither time nor space to investigate this claim here. In either case, it is clear that the best practice is to have a designated driver, drink responsibly, or not at all!

Public Transportation

Public transportation/mass transit has serious safety and sustainability challenges of their own — Not the least of which is inadequate funding and crumbling infrastructure!

In the picture introducing this chapter (above) one of the more devastating subway accidents to have occurred on the in the Greater Washington Metropolitan Area (which includes Northern Virginia, Washington, DC and border areas of Maryland) is depicted.  On June 22nd, 2009,  WTOP News (Channel 9) reported: at  5:02 pm EDT two Red Line trains on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) Metrorail subway system collided despite an integrated safety system specifically designed to prevent such an incident — It certainly was not as effective as Heimdall.

A southbound train  was stopped on the track just short of the Fort Totten station when another southbound train collided with the rear of the stopped train. Several surviving and deceased passengers were trapped for hours during the rescue operation. Nine people died and more than 70 passengers were injured (some quite seriously).

Inadequate maintenance and performance of the track safety sensors systems were found to have contributed to the fatal accident, as shown and described by federal investigators in the simulation below.

WMATA Metro Metrorail Fort Totten Crash Collision Animation

Fast-forward nearly seven years later: the Washington Post reported that approximately 712,000 subway passenger trips were not possible on March 16th, 2016 due to the Emergency 24 Hour closure by the WMATA Metrorail subway system.

While many commuters who couldn’t telework adapted by taking the bus, Uber, light-rail, bicycles, or personal leave; the highway systems that POV drivers use on a daily basis to access the Greater Washington Metropolitan Area simply cannot efficiently handle that much additional traffic on a regular basis!

Less than two weeks later, WMATA also announced that the March Emergency 24 Hour System-Wide Closure for maintenance inspections and emergency repairs may not be an isolated event — Individual subway line shut-downs may be necessary in the future to make further progress toward a safer and more reliable subway system.

Innovative Technologies Future of Car Safety

It cannot be over-emphasized that Safety is a process, not a destination — System Safety doesn’t happen by accident.

Heimdall’s purpose is to prevent accidents by being ever vigilant in identifying risks before they become hazards and mitigating them before they become incidents! This could be considered  one definition of  a philosophy of safety and this  methodology applies to all forms of transportation and the systems that support them.

NBC News 4 Washington reported on April 12th, 2016 that A proposed drunken driving law (“Noah’s Law) passed in the Maryland Senate and House late Monday night (April 11th). The bill goes to the desk of Gov. Larry Hogan, who has indicated he will sign it into law.

The bill, which requires ignition interlock devices for convicted drunken drivers, is named after Montgomery County Police Officer Noah Leotta, who was struck and killed by a suspected drunken driver. Hopefully, interlock safety devices will prevent further incidents such as this in the future.

Innovative safety devices are developed and deployed each year, and while they have varying levels of impact, few can dispute the benefits provided by technology such as: back-up sensors/cameras, air bags, improved headlights, ignition lock-out breathalyzers, all-wheel drive, tire pressure sensors, run-flat tires, lane-drift detection, collision-avoidance,  anti-lock and automatic braking systems. The National Transportation Safety Administration (NTSA) and the Institute for Traffic Safety nurture research into innovative tools such as these.

The Bridge to Safety Which Lane do we Take?

There are many differing views on how to address transportation safety both now and in the future, but it Is inescapable that all infrastructures must be maintained, and some must be periodically replaced entirely!  Structural decay is a function of: volume, load, frequency/density of use, movement, gravity, foundational support,  exposure to environmental conditions (e.g., moisture, heat, fire, solar radiation, pollution, cold, dust, wind, lightning, hail, snow, earthquake,  etc.).

An illustrative example of structural decay discussed above is the Arlington Memorial Bridge that provides a direct commuter connection between GW Parkway and Arlington Cemetery in Virginia to the roads surrounding the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

Although damage to roads from flooding, ice, snow (and snow plows) are often apparent, infrastructure decay of bridges, ramps, tunnels and rails often may not be obvious until there has been a fracture, collapse, cave-in or derailment.  Electrical infrastructure may be even harder to see with a  physical inspection, but at least the remote electrical monitoring of these systems can often be straight-forward and easily monitored from a central location.  In Norse Mythology, that central location is Asgard, where Heimdall is always on-watch!

It’s on Twitter, we see it on the network morning news shows, we listen to it on Traffic Radio, and everyone from the U.S. Secretary of Transportation down through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and out to the individual state Departments of Transportation freely admit it — Our great national network of highways and ramps and bridges are deteriorating and we aren’t keeping-up with their repair!

The Arlington Memorial Bridge is only one example, and it isn’t even very long.  The Virginia – Maryland Beltway found a way to completely replace the original Woodrow Wilson Bridge a few years ago, and while there were plenty of grumbling during the construction of the new bridge, there is little complaining now.  Do bridges have to completely collapse to get people to act?

Decaying Infrastructure of the historic Arlington Memorial Bridge

Rail Side-Track Epilog: True Motivation for Project Heimdall

Passenger trains and light-rail also suffer from the same kinds of infrastructure decay that surface roads and subway lines experience, but human error and inadequate safety practices on the part of train operators and those who maintain the tracks and rail beds have contributed to several fatal accidents in the last few years alone.

April 2016 Train Crash – 1 killed when Amtrak train hits vehicle at Illinois crossing. reported on April 3rd, 2016  that two people were killed and others were injured when an Amtrak train bound for Washington, D.C., slammed into a backhoe south of Philadelphia on Sunday morning.  While this recent fatal accident didn’t happen within the confines of Virginia or DC, the train was indeed headed to the Greater Washington Metropolitan Area and would have stopped in Alexandria, Lorton, Fredericksburg, and Richmond in Virginia. The shutdown of this AMTRAK rail line adversely affected rail travel along the East Coast, and travelers who were planning on embarking on the train from several AMTRAK stations throughout Virginia had to make alternate travel plans using transport other than rail.

Train wrecks can be due to a wide variety of reasons, but a couple of the most common are motor vehicles speeding to unsuccessfully try to beat engines to railroad crossings or improperly attempting to cross tracks in an unsafe manner.  Contributing factors include failure to pay full time and attention/distracted driving (on the part of the train operator and/or the motor vehicle operator), fatigue, medical emergency, poor railway maintenance, crumbling infrastructure or driving while under the influence (DUI).  Examples of some of these are shown in the accompanying video below.

Motor Vehicle vs. Train - The Train Always Wins

Epilog - True Motivation for Heimdall Project

 The motivation for this research arose from the fact that the Author was a “Teen-Aged Crash Dummy.” Back in the late 1970’s, the Author experienced his first car accident on a freshly paved residential street just South-East of Fairfax Hospital. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, but it had rained earlier in the day, and the pavement was wet and steaming in places.  Going down a gentle hill in the Camelot neighborhood, his 1976 Toyota 4-Door Corolla Hatchback began to skid toward parked cars on the right-side of the street.  Believing that he could avoid hitting the cars by turning his steering wheel sharply to the left, the Corolla began skidding sideways down the street.

 Milliseconds after the car went into the skid, the sidewalls of his Toyoglide tires began to collapse and the wheel rims on the passenger side of the car dug into the fresh and soft asphalt.  The momentum of the vehicle caused the Toyota to roll onto its passenger side first, then onto the roof the roof, and finally coming to rest on the driver’s side.  The car was totaled, and three of the four passengers were injured and transported by ambulance to the ER at Fairfax Hospital — The Author still experiences neck pain as a result of whiplash that he received that day. 

The cause of the accident was attributed to road surface conditions (wet/soft asphalt), high vehicular Center of Gravity (CG), substandard under-inflated tires and driver inexperience.

A couple of years later, the Author’s 1978 Toyota Corolla 2-Door Coupe with 5-Speed stick-shift was broadsided at an intersection on Route 1 near Mount Vernon after the engine stalled while waiting for turning traffic to clear the intersection. The Author restarted the engine (car was in too-high a gear to start from a dead stop) and proceeded three-quarters of the way through the intersection only to be hit by a speeding Lincoln Continental in the far right lane – The Lincoln driver was distracted by talking with passengers in his car as darkness was falling on a dry Spring evening. Fortunately there were no significant injuries, and the author was found to not be at fault.

The 1978 Corolla was repaired only to be wrecked again in the Fall of 1980 when the author was cut-off by a Buick driver — who had been drinking, but was not deemed to be impaired — on Beulah Road near Fort Belvoir. It was a cloudy weekday afternoon with leaves on the road, and the Toyota slid and rear-ended the Buick whose driver had been startled by pedestrians along the road and unexpectedly slammed on the brakes, leaving the Toyota too little space to come to a safe stop in time. Fortunately, the pedestrians only stepped off the curb and were never really in danger of being hit — It is not known if alcohol impaired the pedestrians’ judgement as they were not questioned by the police.

In an attempt to explain the accident, the Author pointed-out to the responding police officer that the Buick’s brake lights weren’t functioning — The police officer discounted this observation, saying only “That could be the result of the accident.” While the Corolla sustained significant damage to its front-end, luckily (again) there were no serious injuries or charges. The accident was caused by the Buick driver’s reaction to pedestrians stepping off of a curb and the Toyota’s wheels locking-up when the tires skidded due to leaves on the road surface and insufficient space to stop in time. — Unfortunately, anti-lock brakes and collision avoidance systems weren’t options available on basic Toyota Corollas at that time.

Largely as a result of his Teen-aged Crash Dummy experience, the Author went on to become a Human Factors and System Safety Engineer with a concern for traffic safety.  He has a particular interest in safety devices, road surface conditions, and the effects of weather, light conditions, and driving while distracted or intoxicated.

In Asgard, Heimdall is a safety professional who is forever vigilant in protecting the Nine Realms — in Midgard it is up to us as good citizens of this world to watch for and warn of danger as we protect against hazards whenever and wherever we see them!


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