Lousy Data (Again) & SigAlert (On The) 101

I ranted a while back about how we’re getting more and more dependent on apps and other information services with the assumption that we’re getting accurate data, when in fact that may not be true and you’ll find out when your GPS tells you to drive off the cliff in Monterey when you think it’s finding an address in San Francisco.

In that particular case I was showing how weather data from numerous apps (advertised as highly reliable and something you can’t live without) actually was blatantly inaccurate. To wit, multiple apps showing no rain within twenty or thirty miles while in fact it’s raining cats and dogs outside.

I had often seen a similar problem with another app and data set, but didn’t have the documentation I needed to write about it. Today, unfortunately, I got a really extreme example of that data issue.

To get from our house in the west San Fernando Valley out to the CAF hangar in Camarillo, the fastest, most direct, and most obvious route is out the 101 Freeway through Agoura and Thousand Oaks. If that route is blocked and you know it, you can go up to the 118 Freeway through Simi Valley, or you can swing down to the coast and go up the scenic but slow Pacific Coast Highway. If it’s blocked and you’re already in it or drive into it blindly, you are screwed. Maybe, maybe you can bail off onto the surface streets at some points, but at others you’re just up the creek.

I was headed out this morning, just coming through the canyons out of Calabasas, getting out into the flats leading into Agoura, when we came to a dead halt very quickly. There’s no hope of getting off the freeway to look for an alternative at that point. All four lanes stop, and stay stopped. It was somewhere between 8:25 and 8:30.

File Nov 21, 16 16 08 small

Zero miles per hour, lots of cars all around. And yes, my fifteen year old van does have 187,000+ miles on it.

After a couple of minutes, I realized that: a) I was stuck and up that proverbial creek, and; b) this would be a good chance to test my longstanding gripe about the timeliness and accuracy of the SigAlert data.

File Nov 21, 16 15 11

Image: SigAlert app for iPhone

For those not from California, a “SigAlert” is an unplanned blockage of one or more freeway lanes for thirty minutes or longer. It started way back in 1955 and is named for a local radio guy, Loyd Sigmon. Sigmon came up with the idea of an alert system in which traffic emergency information would be delivered to all radio and television outlets immediately. The technology has developed quite a bit over the years, naturally, but the term stuck.

Fine, I was stuck in a SigAlert, that was obvious pretty quickly. But as of 8:34, showing data from 8:31, the app shows everything green, wide open traffic, despite seeing this outside my windshield for almost ten minutes.

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Oh, there goes a fire truck. We had already had two or three police cars go by at this point. There was another one right behind this one. Then one of the big hook-and-ladders went by down the center divider. Then the ambulances started going by.

That’s never a good sign.

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Image: SigAlert app for iPhone

It’s now almost fifteen minutes since we stopped, and the SigAlert app is still showing all green, “maximum freeway speed” (a semi-official euphemism for “everyone’s doing 70 to 75 in a 65 mph zone”), no problems!

But now I notice the icon for a freeway camera up ahead. What does it show?

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Image: SigAlert app for iPhone

Well, THERE‘s your problem! That’s looking right back at us, I’m stuck in the traffic on the left side coming at the camera, just in that first curve you see. You can see the traffic on the opposite side backing up quickly from “lookie-loos,” or “spectator slowing” if you want to be official.

The camera images seem to update every ten to fifteen seconds if you keep refreshing the image, and it looks like the data is much, much more current. It may or may not be actually live, but the map is obvious nonsense.

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Image: SigAlert app for iPhone

Finally at 8:46, using data from 8:43, over fifteen minutes late, the app starts to show some slowing in the area. No sign that there’s an incident or accident, and no details on what might be going on.

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Image: SigAlert app for iPhone

Even though there’s no red diamond icon on the map yet, if you go hunting for details there is a partially correct description of the problem. The accident happened more like 8:21, not 8:41, it wasn’t just the fast lane blocked but all four lanes, and traffic wasn’t just backed up at the site, it was gridlocked for more than five miles at this point.

But, hey, it’s a start?

File Nov 21, 16 20 08 small

Image: SigAlert app for iPhone

Someone at CalTrans (which operates the remote cameras) obviously is aware of the problem since they’ve zoomed in on it. Yep, we’re screwed.

You’ll also notice that there’s significantly less traffic on the opposite side of the freeway as well. They were in the process of closing down the four lanes south/east bound with just the last handful of cars getting through in that direction.

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Meanwhile, back in the gridlock, it’s been over twenty minutes and no one’s hoping that they’ll clear the lanes and getting us out of here quickly. Engines are off, folks are wandering along the center divider, climbing up onto the embankments on the right side of the freeway to see what’s going on, and so on. A barefoot, shirtless guy was cruising between the lanes of cars on his skateboard.

Ah, California!

There had been a brief movement when a handful of freakin’ idiots drove off onto the right shoulder thinking they could drive by the whole mess that way, or get off at the offramp. But the offramp was also blocked by the accident, so all they did is block the shoulder so that the tow trucks, fire trucks, police, and ambulances trying to use the shoulder to get to the accident got gridlocked in the backup as well.

Well played, morons!

You’ll also note that by this time, in the picture shown, the lanes heading the opposite way were not completely empty. This was because they were bringing in a LifeFlight helicopter to evacuate some of the accident casualties. Being out at Camarillo Airport all the time, where the Ventura County helicopters are based near our hangars, I see these helicopters taking off and landing all the time. (Not that I’m jaded, it’s still cool to watch every time!) I’m guessing for about 99% of those stuck in traffic, it was a rare and unusual sight.

Thousands of cell phones were recording the helicopter! People standing on top of their cars, standing up through sun roofs, standing on the door frames… Aside from the fact that we were stuck and missing meetings and birthdays and weddings and late for work and getting home from work and a thousand other problems and inconveniences, it was pretty neat!

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Behind me didn’t look any better than in front of me.

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Image: SigAlert app for iPhone

Over forty minutes after the accident, the SigAlert app still isn’t accurate. The red, severe congestion area was at least twice that long according to the traffic reports on the radio, and “downstream” of the accident there wasn’t any traffic at all – every single lane was still blocked!

File Nov 21, 16 38 12 smallSkateboarding Guy came by again. Large groups of people were congregating in the center divider, I’m guessing because they could see the accident better, trying to get a clue about when they were going to open up the lanes again.

A CHP motorcycle cop rolled by, yelling at everyone to get back in their cars, really PO’d at people who didn’t hustle when he said to, yelling that it was for our safety. Really? Keeping us safe from what? We hadn’t moved in over an hour! The only danger was Skateboarding Guy.

Shown above is Golfing Guy. From what he’s wearing I’m thinking he was late for a tee time. About every five minutes he got out and took a few practice swings in between the cars. Meanwhile, after the helicopter took off, the opposing lanes opened up. It was a bit disturbing how many of them were honking at us and taunting because they could go and we were still stuck. Bastards!

At 9:39, about 1:15 after we first got stopped, all lanes opened up. Everyone sprinted for their cars and got the engines going, except for the old pickup truck in the lane next to me. As I drove off, its starter was grinding away and finally the folks stuck behind him had found their limit.

Lessons learned? Just as you can’t accurately rely on most weather apps to give you up to the minute, geographically accurate and timely information, it looks like you can’t count on the SigAlert app either. At all. The only part that worked was the freeway cameras, but you don’t check those unless you’re stuck already, and the accident may occur someplace where there aren’t any cameras.

And always carry a good book in the car. Just in case.

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Filed under Distracted Driving, Los Angeles, Photography, Video

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