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How lasers would save lives on the New York subway

Posting in Technology
This year, 144 people were hit on the subway tracks, and 52 died. 

To cut those numbers, New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority will be testing new, potentially life-saving safety features at an undisclosed station in the next few weeks.

The key is detecting a body on the tracks immediately and getting that information to train drivers as fast as possible -- stopping oncoming trains from pulling into the station. 

Four “intrusion detection” systems will be tested to determine the best method: motion-sensor lasers, video-analyzing software, radio frequencies, and infrared cameras. New York Daily News explains

  • Lasers beaming across the tracks would trigger an alarm if somebody trips it (like in the movies). 
  • Radio frequencies, which will be transmitted below the platform edge, would work similarly. 
  • Thermal imaging cameras focused on the tracks would detect body heat. 
  • Closed-circuit television cameras and smart video software can detect when large objects move from the platform to the tracks. Additionally, live feeds will be streamed to the Rail Control Center.
  • When the alarms are triggered, an incoming subway train can be alerted and slow down before the conductor can see the person on the tracks. 

“Given the heightened concern regarding customers being struck by trains, we’re exploring new platform safety technologies that we hope will prevent these incidents in the future,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said

It's unclear, however, if a system like this would actually be implemented even if the pilot program is successful since MTA has a debt totaling about $31 billion, Mashable reports. And, adding any sort of new technology would be a challenge, Daily News adds: the subway is more than a century old and has 468 non-uniform stations, many of which don’t shut down overnight. 

What's more, traveling by subway is actually relatively safe. Of all the traffic fatalities in the U.S. in 2011, 35 percent involved cars, 25 percent trucks, 13 percent motorcycles, and 13 percent involved pedestrians struck by motor vehicles, Popular Science reports. People killed by subways accounted for just one quarter of one percent. 

[h/t The Verge]

Image: J. Fang

— By on December 22, 2013, 4:39 PM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure