A modern version of an age-old riddle: If a car crashes in the forest, will the rescue squad still hear about it?
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) are working on the high-tech answer: a system that would automatically call 911 when a car crash occurs.
The Howard County lab's researchers say the system -- which uses cellular phone and satellite technology -- would be particularly useful in rural areas, where a third of all traffic fatalities take place.
It's a system that might have prevented the June ordeal of a Baltimore County woman trapped in a pickup truck for four days with the vehicle's dead driver after it crashed over an embankment and out of sight.
"When you talk to people about what they want on a car, safety always comes up at the top of the list," says Richard Snavely, APL's program manager for the Automated Collision Notification System, which could be commercially available in three to five years.
"This is something we believe will save lives."
It's one of several new and existing technologies the federal government is hoping to bundle into what it calls the "National Automated Highway System," a project officials say will make road travel safer and more efficient in the 21st century.
Other researchers, such as those at Delco Electronics in Kokomo, Ind., are working on technology similar to the APL project. Robert Leggat, a spokesman for Delco, said his company expects to release a commercial version in two to three years.
But APL's crash notification system -- developed under a $380,000 federal contract over the past two years -- already has rescue officials worried it could produce a new wave of false alarms.
"We're going to have a bumpy course trying to figure out how to make this work," said Dr. Robert Bass, executive director of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems. "There already are far more responses than actual transports."
Although it could work in any setting, the system is intended to help victims of accidents in remote locations where a crash can go unnoticed for days.
Last year, about 12,000 people were killed in single-vehicle accidents in rural areas -- a third of all motor vehicle fatalities nationwide, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In the Baltimore County accident last summer, the victim languished with a broken back, severe blood loss and other injuries before a landscape worker found the wreck, which wasn't visible from the road.
"This is the kind of situation the [APL] system is designed to help," said Art Carter, who is overseeing the project for NHTSA.
Here's how it would work:
* A car would be equipped with crash-sensing devices such as accelerometers, which detect a sudden loss of speed, and with an electronic device identifying the vehicle.
* The car also would be equipped with a Global Positioning System -- a satellite link that can pinpoint an object anywhere on Earth. The GPS already is used in the digital maps optional in the Oldsmobile 88 and other passenger cars.
* In a crash, the system would alert a 911 operator that an accident had taken place and would signal the location, using cellular phone lines or a separate satellite link.
APL's researchers are working on options that would give rescuers such information as how many passengers were in the car. All of the equipment, Mr. Snavely says, "could fit under the back of a car."
The hardware used in APL's experimental models cost about $100 to $150, said Mr. Snavely, although he could not say what a system could cost the consumer.
The GPS, for instance, is a $1,900 option on the Oldsmobile 88. But that system includes such things as computer software with mapping data that would not be necessary for the collision system. Less sophisticated automotive GPS systems start about $1,000.
Other factors, such as equipment and personnel needed to operate 911 centers with the new technology, also would have an effect on the price of an automatic crash notification system.
Despite all that, APL and NHTSA researchers say they have tried to keep consumer costs low.
"The whole idea is to speed deployment and to get the car industry interested in this," Mr. Snavely says.
Such systems eventually could prove an attractive option to safety-conscious car buyers, agrees Peter Ternes, a spokesman for the Oldsmobile Division of General Motors in Lansing, Mich.
"Theoretically, it would be easy to do," he says. "It makes a lot of sense."
But emergency officials still worry that such a system could drive up the number of false alarms. In Maryland, emergency medical vehicles last year responded to more than 100,000 false calls.
The cost for an ambulance response -- whether real or false -- ranges from $350 to $750 a trip, according to Brenda Staffan, administrative director of the American Ambulance Association in Sacramento, Calif.
"In a perfect world, if there were no false alarms, the cost [for all ambulance responses] would be lower," Ms. Staffan said.
If the problems with false alarms can be resolved, emergency officials more than likely will embrace the new technology, says Dr. Bass, the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems director.