Safe freeway project comes of age

Safe Freeway Project manager Neil Slater and afternoon control room operator Ruschton Fisher confer on a traffic incident.

What started a year ago as an informal WhatsApp community group, forming convoys for travelling on the N2 at peak periods, has evolved into a formal freeway monitoring system with a manned control room, which monitors a large portion off the metropole roadway system, keeps subscribers informed in real time of conditions, and dispatches assistance in the event of an emergency.

The Safe Freeway Project is headquartered in Somerset West, from where it keeps some 8 000 registered users (1 500 are paid-up members), informed of conditions on all major routes from 5am to 9pm Monday to Friday, and 10am to 6pm on Saturdays. The system does not operate on Sundays.

“We’re hoping to make this a 24/7 service soon,” says manager Neil Slater. “When the control centre is not manned (9pm to 5am), Marc Volker, one of our operators, is on standby in the event of a member sending out an alert, or somebody needing assistance.”

Formally established as the Safe N2 Project on August 1 2015, the initiative started life as the N2 Convoy Group, with people subscribing to a WhatsApp group and informally organising convoys for travelling into and out of Cape Town on the N2 at peak times, premised on “safety in numbers.”

“We quickly learned that this was bigger than organising convoys,” says Mr Slater. “The need for people to be kept informed of conditions out there was much greater, so we shifted our focus to getting relevant, real-time information out to our members as rapidly as possible.”

The WhatsApp groups evolved into broadcast lists, which ensure that posts in the list by subscribers do not impact all users, as happens in a conventional WhatsApp group. “We broadcast regular real-time updates of road conditions to subscribers, and if anybody responds or posts in the WhatsApp broadcast list, what they post is not repeated to everybody,” he says.

“It comes back to us in the control room. Depending upon what the subscriber has posted, the operator will verify and broadcast the information to subscribers if it is relevant,” says Mr Slater.

The control room operator monitors traffic and other conditions in real time, by tapping into the camera system of the Freeway Monitoring System, using in-house built systems according to Mr Slater. “When there is a crash, we as quickly as possible determine the severity as this will impact road users. Sometimes an incident is cleared very quickly, and no major congestion happens, sometimes it is quite the opposite, even outside of peak traffic times. We will keep our members informed of these incidents through the WhatsApp broadcasts as well as in the user access area, to which all paid members have access, at www.safen2.co.za/user. We also monitor protest actions and broadcast these to our members. We monitor morning and afternoon peak times and send out regular estimated travel times through the congestion. We are also able to monitor and report on estimated travel times through congested areas, caused by an incident.”

The project monitors the N1, N2, R300, M5, M3, sections of Baden Powell Drive, and the R44.

The WhatsApp broadcast lists will be replaced by a mobile phone app, hopefully by end October. Mr Slater explains: “One of the main ideas of the app is quicker response times for emergency services (government or private) to an incident, and to afford as much help as possible to assist the person in need.” It will be available for Android and Apple devices.

An important component of the system, is the user access area on the project’s web site (safen2.co.za/user), which affords paid-up members real-time updates on road conditions, and well as access to the camera monitoring system. “we send out a main WhatsApp message regarding an incident, and then follow up with regular updates in the user access area because we do not want to impose too much. WhatsApp can be very intrusive,” says Mr Slater. Members can access the cameras which monitor all of the roadways monitored by the project in real-time, to assess conditions and make informed travel decisions.

The project also operates a Twitter feed, open to anybody, @SafeN2Project, and a Facebook page, Safe N2 Project, both of which are regularly updated, and in which subscribers can communicate with each other about road and travel conditions.

Signing up is easy. Browse to the website at safen2.co.za and follow the “Register Now” instructions. Payment is processed through the PayFast secure gateway. Annual membership is R89.