28 November 2023

What are all these roadside cameras doing? And can they help you if you have a prang?

| James Coleman
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There are now 119 of these CCTV cameras across the ACT’s road network, so what are they doing? Photo: Screenshot, ACT Government.

By this point in the 21st century, we’re used to cameras. They’re in stores. They’re in lifts. They’re in buses. They’re by the roadside with ‘speed camera’ warning signs spread out for hundreds of metres before them, but wait – hang on – what are all these other cameras?

The eagle-eyed will have spotted an increasing number of white cameras overlooking roadways and intersections across Canberra. But what are they looking at? Where’s the footage going? And would you be able to ‘pretty-please’ access this footage in the case of a prang?

The ACT Government rolled out the first 25 traffic cameras in 2021, all high-definition and with tilt, pan and zoom functions.

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Many of these were installed on gantries along the Tuggeranong Parkway as part of a plan to turn it into a ‘smart road’ with live traffic monitoring and variable speed limit signs – just like the major motorways in Sydney.

There are now 119 traffic cameras across the road network, with the most recent added to 23 locations, including five along Parkes Way and four along Caswell Drive/Tuggeranong Parkway.

Other key locations include:

  • Northbourne Avenue / London Circuit
  • Anzac Parade / Constitution Avenue
  • Kings Avenue / State Circle
  • Northbourne Avenue / Alinga Street
  • Limestone Avenue / Majura Avenue / Wakefield Avenue, Ainslie
  • Monaro Highway / Morshead Drive / Pialligo Avenue, Campbell
  • Flemington Drive / Nullarbor Avenue, Harrison
  • Horse Park Drive and the Federal Highway on-ramp, Majura
  • Fairbairn Avenue and Majura Road, Pialligo
  • Ashley Drive and Clift Crescent, Richardson
  • Cotter Road and Streeton Drive, Weston
  • John Gorton Drive and Steve Irwin Avenue, Wright
  • Parkes Way near the Glenloch Interchange
  • Parkes Way near Black Mountain Peninsula
  • Gungahlin Drive approaching Belconnen Way
  • Caswell Drive north of the Glenloch Interchange
  • Tuggeranong Parkway at the Glenloch Interchange
  • Tuggeranong Parkway near Forrest Drive.

The ACT Government has plans to turn the Tuggeranong Parkway into a ‘smart road’. Photo: Ian Bushnell.

This total brings it in line with a report from 2013, prepared for the ACT Government by infrastructure consulting firm AECOM.

This found the ACT’s then traffic management systems “inadequate” and suggested a staged rollout of a sophisticated integrated traffic management system of 119 CCTV cameras and variable speed signs and monitoring stations.

This would be jointly funded by the territory and federal governments through a $12 million road safety funding program. The most recent rollout totalled $1.2 million over two years.

View from traffic cameras

Traffic cameras are typically placed at intersections with a history of accidents. Photo: ACT Government.

In a submission to the government’s ‘Inquiry into Dangerous Driving’, ACT Policing asked to use these cameras for number-plate recognition, something they have reportedly employed through the point-to-point speed cameras on Hindmarsh and Athlon Drive.

Police have also reportedly used data from the MyWay electronic bus ticketing system in the past, and footage from a camera inside an ACTION bus was used in 2013 to work out who was at fault when two cars collided and an 84-year-old man was killed.

But to do this, they have to demonstrate it’s “reasonably necessary for the enforcement of the criminal law”.

A government spokesperson confirmed the 119 traffic cameras aren’t used in this way.

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“An expanded network of transport monitoring technology has been introduced to both help motorists make real-time decisions about what route to take and improve response times when incidents happen across the network,” the spokesperson said.

In other words, the cameras provide a live feed of what’s happening on the road.

This is watched every weekday from 7 am to 7 pm from the Traffic Management Centre (TMC) in Fyshwick and “occasionally outside of these hours when significant events are being held”.

From here, the team is able to change traffic lights from red to green or vice versa to improve traffic flow, alert bus drivers of incidents across the network and inform motorists of potential delays via social media, radio messages or the variable message signs by the side of the road.

There are currently nine variable message boards across Canberra. They were recently added to the Tuggeranong Parkway, Majura Parkway and Belconnen Way.

The spokesperson affirmed the “cameras utilise live monitoring only and are not recorded”.

So far, their only other use has been to identify safety hazards, such as potholes.

For example, in 2022, the team identified potholes on the Tuggeranong Parkway after they spotted unusual activity on the screens when multiple vehicles pulled over in the same spot.

Inside the Traffic Management Centre (TMC)

Inside the Traffic Management Centre (TMC). Photo: Lottie Twyford.

TMC also taps into footage provided by the CCTV cameras on Transport Canberra buses, information from ACT Policing and ‘Bluetooth sniffers’ to monitor traffic.

The ‘sniffers’ don’t provide any visual feed but pick up the MAC addresses of Bluetooth-enabled devices, such as smartphones, in passing cars. Another sniffer further down the road picks up this same information and times how long it took the car to reach it.

This effectively provides the operations team real-time information on commute times and congestion.

There are currently 234 Bluetooth sniffers on Canberra’s roads. The data collected is encrypted and deleted as soon as it has done its job.

As to other uses of technology like this, the ACT Government would have to prove the information is “necessary” to prevent a serious threat to the life, health or safety of any individual, or face serious legal consequences under the Commonwealth Privacy Act 1988.

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SCATS has been around for a very long time now. Is it regularly updated and improved like the best computer programmes? And if so, have these updates been implemented in Canberra? Not to mention sensor hardware upgrades?

The in-road sensors placed at the stop line are just conditioning drivers to rush up to the line and run the yellow, even red. Right turning lane sensors mostly don’t even seem to respond unless triggered before the previous phase ends. And, as pointed out in other posts, (except in the rare cases of approach sensor placements) sensors have no idea of what is coming or queueing. Wonderful things for road safety, not.

Likewise the stupidity of present ‘walk’ phases waiting time out long after the sole pedestrian/cyclist/scooter rider has crossed is unbelievable in this day and age.

They have cameras that can read number plates and check rego status, record infringements, etc in real time, but can’t be bothered to supplement the dinosaur age in-road sensors with some smart cameras and AI.

Worst of all, is the huge inefficiencies the present limited capabilities introduce to the transport task AND the entirely un-necessary environment (eg carbon emissions) damaging issues consequent on the continual stop/starts imposed and the wasteful idling of traffic waiting for nothing.

Couldn’t agree more. It’s crazy to see 15 to 20 vehicles stopped on Belconnen Way so 1 vehicle gets a green light. With a smart system the single car could be held for an extra 20-25 seconds and then proceed once the other flow has cleared the lights. Green technology at its best.

So many questions and so few answers.

The traffic light at the intersection of Gungahlin Drive and Gundaroo Drive gives a very low priority to the vehicles that pass towards Gungahlin Town centre between 4 pm and 6 pm on weekdays. If the bus is there for waiting to go, that will be even worse, the signal will allow only 4 to 5 cars depending on how quickly the first driver starts up. Most of the time, you need to stop 2 to 3 times on that intersection, very frustrating.

A lot of Canberra’s traffic lights are to dumb to know when they are holding up more and more queuing vehicles than they are letting through.

I have been saying for years that they need additional sensors further back from the lights to detect when there is either a bank up of traffic or more vehicle approaching the intersection from that direction.

I find it extraordinary that we spend so much money on surveillance but we still have dumb traffic lights. With so many sensors, why can’t traffic lights have variable timing so a whole line of cars can go through if there is no-one coming the other way?

PC__LoadLetter4:59 pm 28 Nov 23

Our traffic lights already use some of the smartest tech in the world. The system has the really unfortunate name of SCATS. If you’d spent enough time overseas you’d see truly dumb lights that run entirely on timers.

There is, of course, massive room for improvement.

My preference, if anyone asked, would be to have traffic lights on minor roads flash orange 8-12 hours per day. People can slow down, assess the situation, and keep driving. And if the induction loops pick up long delayed traffic, the lights can resume conventional operation for a little while.

Anyone who spends time on the ACT roads knows that for the most part the traffic system is “dumb” and inefficient. Off-peak – the first person to trip the in-road magnetic sensor tiggers a state change with no regard to the bigger picture. Smart use of algorithms fed rich sensor data can undoubtedly optimise traffic flow by adapting traffic light state changes to actual traffic conditions. If i had a dollar for every minute spent held up by a red light at an empty intersection…

Nothing smart about the lights here. If you want to take a turn lane you have to drive completely up to the line to hit the sensor strip, and stop there to get the light activated. Wasting fuel and brakes

Capital Retro2:50 pm 28 Nov 23

Lots of wabbit scats around city hill and throughout the ANU.

the parkway should be variable speed limit based on weather 0KM in rain, 110km in dry

ChrisinTurner1:55 pm 28 Nov 23

Our synchronization system, called SCATS, has been installed at more than 60,000 intersections across 200 cities and 30 countries worldwide.

Could someone in the government please please please fix the traffic light synchronising around Canberra! I have travelled throughout Australia and parts of the US, NZ and Europe and Canberra must be the worst place to get around as a driver or pedestrian. Step off the kerb or move out from an intersection when the light turns green and it straight away turns red giving drivers and pedestrians little time to cross. Not to mention endless lights on main thoroughfares turning amber when no cars are waiting on opposite sides or drivers who have been waiting for an eternity to cross. Then there are the drivers who are forced to wait and others given the green light and right of way who have arrived later.

Maybe our government (are you reading Chris Steel?) can get some tips from other capital cities around Australia or overseas (New York or closer to home Melbourne, Auckland and Wellington?) where travelling at the advertised speed limit mostly provides a smooth trip without endless stop/starts at traffic lights!

This is a very good point – unless this is intentional for some weird reason but yes ACT roads do have pretty poor light management. In most cities I thought they were syncrhonised to keep traffic moving along not this stop start thing thing in Canberra. It is odd why Canberra has chosen to ignore decades of established practice elsewhere and go out of their way to make private transport frustrating and inefficient.

Yes, exactly!
and sometimes you are at lights ready to go and if the person in front hesitates one person gets across and then its red again.
Surely this can be calibrated better.
I think 60-70% of traffic congestion could be solved with better traffic light calibration.

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