EVERYBODY complains about the traffic, like the weather, but no one does anything about it. That may finally be changing as new technology to track cars becomes more widely used. The average commuter in the United States spent 34 hours fuming in traffic in 2010, according to the 2011 Urban Mobility Report from the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. And traffic congestion isn't just irritating; it's costly. The report estimates that in 2010 gridlock wasted 1.9 billion gallons of fuel and, coupled with the associated loss in worker productivity, ended up costing $100 billion.
Avoiding traffic tie-ups is a particularly vexing problem because there is no single source of live traffic information. Cities may have cameras at major intersections and old loop sensors buried in a handful of roads, but lack information about secondary streets. Accident reports help to identify bottlenecks, but by the time the information is reported it's too late for hundreds of drivers already stranded by a fender bender.
The ideal solution would be to gather live information on the speed and location of most vehicles on the road, and then to transmit the relevant traffic conditions to drivers so they can avoid problems ahead. A sampling of three services suggests this is finally starting to happen with improved accuracy, thanks to the growing popularity of in-car telematics and use of smartphones.
The basic idea is to gather information from drivers on the road through in-dash or smartphone GPS and cellular connections. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement. To receive alerts, drivers allow the services to collect anonymous information on their speed and location.
Inrix, for example, offers a welter of data on its free Traffic smartphone app. In the past, the company aggregated traffic information from a variety of sources -- including local transportation departments, emergency first-responders, construction reports and commercial fleet operators -- and analyzed the data in real time to deliver live traffic information.
Inrix's smartphone app adds more information by tapping app users. On the screen, one will see color-coded roads -- green if the traffic is flowing well, red if the going is slow -- as well as orange and white cones marking construction sites and exclamation marks for accidents. A premium $24.99 edition for the iPhone adds unlimited routes and icons for traffic cameras. Tap on the camera graphic, and you'll see a snapshot of vehicles at that location.
The traffic-obsessed traveler can use the app to see whether, if the trip were shifted several hours later, the traffic is predicted to be lighter. A-type personalities can send a message noting estimated arrival time to a friend.
Inrix is also hoping a traffic community will develop. So app users are encouraged to help improve traffic flow by confirming an obstruction or noting one has been cleared.
Inrix's software focuses on traffic. You can plot a route and it will tell the estimated travel time but doesn't provide turn-by-turn directions or reroute you if a tie-up lies ahead.
While parked in one of those tie-ups, I tried another free app called Waze. Unlike Inrix, Waze relies primarily on location and speed information culled from users of its app to determine conditions. It offers turn-by-turn navigation.
Its real strength, though, is that it shows the location of other Waze drivers on the screen as moving icons. While sitting in the backup, I could see whether drivers ahead were picking up speed (indicating congestion was clearing) or getting off the highway to find quicker routes.
You can send short messages to other Waze drivers -- but I wouldn't recommend it unless you want to cause another accident. Waze encourages drivers to post warnings and alerts by awarding game points.
While the directions Waze offered matched those of several stand-alone portable navigation devices I tested, it was slower to deliver spoken instructions (depending on your cellular connection speed and the model of your smartphone). I also found the traffic jam icons weren't as precise as they could be; the same symbol may indicate gridlock or just moderate traffic. On the other hand, where Inrix Traffic merely noted there was a camera at an intersection, Waze correctly noted it was a dreaded red-light camera.
There are other traffic warning options. TomTom offers a similar service it calls HD Traffic on its line of Go Live portable navigation devices, which have two-way wireless data connections and start around $180. After the first year, an annual $59.95 subscription is required.
In the U.S., TomTom collects traffic information from some of the same local municipal sources as other providers, and then adds its own historical data along with live information from HD Traffic subscribers. Like the Waze and Inrix approach, it means other users are contributing real-time information.
For drivers accustomed to windshield-mounted navigation, TomTom's HD Traffic integrates nicely with the traditional display of the device. It will, for example, present a visual and audible alert suggesting an alternate route if there's a problem ahead.
Ultimately, solving the traffic problem is a numbers game. All three approaches were valuable to me -- and much more useful than anything available two or three years ago -- but none achieved perfection.
While the services won't say how many American drivers are connected, Inrix asserts that it has 100 million vehicles delivering information around the world. Waze says it has 17 million global users, and TomTom says HD Traffic has 1 million. Presumably, as more drivers use such services -- and in turn contribute information from their cars -- the accuracy and utility will continue to improve.