Driving down the highway in Houston, it doesn’t take long before you run into a dynamic message sign. They’re known for broadcasting Amber Alerts when a child is missing. But if it seems like you’re seeing more notices of an elderly person missing, you’re right. Those have gone up, while Amber Alerts have gone down.
Dinah Massie with Houston TranStar says there are actually four different types of alerts:
“the Amber Alert for missing young people, the Silver Alert for elderly people, a Blue Alert for a law enforcement officer, who’s been injured and the perpetrator is on the loose, and then, a new alert for the mentally challenged.”
If you’ve never seen a Blue Alert, it’s because Houston has never issued one before. The decision to issue an alert comes from Austin.
And even though they’re meant to help locate a missing person, Massie says not everyone is happy to see them.
“We get feedback from them about anything you can imagine, but they complain occasionally about the number of alerts we post, because people love their travel times. They love to see fifteen minutes to Beltway 8. That’s their favorite message, if you will.”
There’s a good reason people love those traffic messages. Unlike traffic broadcasts from some media outlets, the signs are pretty accurate. But Massie says all it takes is one fender bender and what you see on the sign may not be what lies ahead of you.
“The signs are generally very accurate, but occasionally what will happen is you’ll see a sign and within fifteen seconds or thirty seconds, or a minute there will be an accident ahead of you and that won’t be reflected in the sign you just passed. And it takes almost no time for traffic to back up half a mile. I mean you’d be amazed at how quickly traffic becomes congested.”
Houston has added 20 new signs to the East Beltway at a cost of $75,000 each.
Ideally the transportation department would like to be able to inform the public about a missing person and also give traffic information on the same sign. But despite all the breakthroughs in technology, that is something they’re unable to do for now.