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Traffic radio station prefers humans to high tech

The Internet radio station J4Traffic brings traffic reports straight from the commuters. Drivers call from Route 128, for example, to describe accidents that are slowing down traffic or other causes. There have been safety concerns over listeners who are recording audio reports and uploading them via a smartphone app, potentially in violation of the state law against texting while driving.

MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 2013

The Internet radio station J4Traffic brings traffic reports straight from the commuters. Drivers call from Route 128, for example, to describe accidents that are slowing down traffic or other causes. There have been safety concerns over listeners who are recording audio reports and uploading them via a smartphone app, potentially in violation of the state law against texting while driving.

In the epic quest to outsmart traffic congestion in Boston, commuters have any number of high-tech weapons at hand: Google Maps, which uses GPS to provide real-time traffic data, apps such as Waze and Inrix that track users’ cellphones to analyze travel speed, and websites that feature live video feeds from major highways.

Or, you can just tune in to a fellow commuter who’s calling in to report that, for example, “the lower end of 128 from the triangle up to, um, 138, is OK.”

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The latest innovation in traffic reporting relies on an old-fashioned format: a talk-radio-style broadcast in which fellow commuters send in reports from the road, and an on-air host who talks about one thing all morning: traffic, nothing but traffic.

The Internet radio station J4Traffic debuted in early February with founder and host Todd Feinburg, a former WRKO radio personality, coaxing useful tidbits about road conditions from an ad-hoc committee of traffic reporters. The idea is to harness the wisdom of the crowd — like a radio version of Wikipedia.

Feinburg said GPS data or video feeds alone provide limited information, while an account from a guy stuck in the traffic jam a mile down the road may save your morning commute.

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“The maps used in most traffic reporting show you where there is congestion, but they can’t tell you what is causing that backup,” said Feinburg. “Now you can hear what people on the road are experiencing, which can help you make a better decision about your route.”

In two weeks on the air, the station has hit high notes that included helpful directions for commuters, and experienced the kind of hiccups typical of a startup, such as one 10-minute stretch of dead air.

When a tractor-trailer caught fire and slowed down the Southeast Expressway last Thursday, on-air reporter Aaron Sawyer provided highly detailed directions for commuters to navigate around the backup. Then there were volunteers with a less-polished report, including one who during an awkward two-minute call was unable to deliver a coherent report, even when prompted by Feinburg.

Yet contributors who have gotten the hang of J4Traffic’s format are delivering helpful information and a touch of humor — and relishing the chance to be heard on the air. One caller named Joe checks in often every morning, an evolving celebrity of sorts on “the J.”

Jeff Howe, who writes Crowdsourcing.com, a blog, said it is the presence of fellow motorists that draws listeners to J4Traffic. Like the weather, traffic is a universal conversation topic, especially in a city known for its congestion. And people like to commiserate about their problems, even if they can’t fix them.

“I can imagine a lot of people, including myself, saying, ‘You know what, I’d love to hear a human tell me about the traffic. I’m sick of looking at screens all day. I want to hear a human talk to me,’ ” said Howe, who also teaches multimedia journalism at Northeastern University.

“I think we’re going to see a whole slew of products based on backlash against technology,” Howe added.

Traffic updates have long been a staple at broadcast stations such as WBZ-AM, which offers “traffic and weather together on the 3s.” But the typical broadcast reports are short, rapid bursts that careen from location to location and require sharp hearing, and often use shorthand that may be undecipherable to all but veteran listeners.

J4Traffic, by contrast, positively lingers over each traffic jam as if it’s a tasty morsel to be enjoyed slowly. Indeed, Feinburg and his callers have enough time that the patter often turns to humor. One morning in its first week, after a fire at a Burger King in Boston blocked traffic, the fast food jokes came thick and heavy, with Feinburg cracking that “the cheese is extra melty today.”

Still, technology has provided commuters recently with a remarkable number of ways to plot their daily drives. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation, for example, has video cameras mounted at 66 potential trouble spots, and streams the aerial view of those roadways live on its website.

In the meantime, Google uses the location of GPS-enabled Android devices to monitor the flow of traffic and construct color-coded digital maps that show the status of major routes in real time.

The tech giant paid nearly $1 billion last summer for Waze, an Israeli company whose mobile application allows users to passively contribute information about driving conditions by simply leaving the app open while in the car. The speed of a user’s vehicle helps Waze determine which roads are moving and which are delayed. More active contributors can also identify locations of accidents, construction zones, and speed traps with the app.

Waze, which has about 200,000 users in the Boston area, is one of the big names on a long list of apps designed to help drivers avoid bad traffic. A search for “traffic” in the Apple App Store yields more than 2,000 results.

Ironically, the technology aspect of J4Traffic’s operation may be its most problematic — legally, that is. Contributors who file reports from behind the wheel have to upload and send an audio file to J4Traffic, which would seem to violate the Massachusetts law banning texting and e-mailing while driving. State Police are concerned that J4Traffic’s contributors will be so distracted when preparing reports that they will create unsafe driving conditions.

“It is easy to see how a driver intent on creating his own traffic report or checking those of other drivers on a mobile device would not be focusing solely on driving, and that could pose a danger,” said State Police spokesman David Procopio.

“Use of this or any app on a mobile device in a manner that interferes with the driver’s ability to safely operate a vehicle would be considered impaired operation, and thus punishable under the law,” Procopio said.

Feinburg said contributors need only make a few screen taps to submit a recording to J4Traffic, making it easier and safer than placing a phone call while driving, which is legal.

“We designed the app to be very simple, and not require your eyes to be on it,” he said. “We want people to be able to keep their eyes where they belong, which is on the road.”

The business plan for J4Traffic is to avoid long commercial breaks by finding local companies to underwrite costs in exchange for brief on-air mentions, much like public radio. Feinburg said several businesses have expressed interest if J4Traffic takes off.

The success of crowdsourced traffic apps such as Waze suggests it could. Waze spokeswoman Julie Mossler said her company has discovered people are surprisingly gung-ho about sharing their traffic observations.

“By reporting an accident, you’re not receiving any specific benefit,” Mossler said. “But time and time again, we see from comments on our Facebook page and our blog that people really are motivated by helping other people on the road. There’s this feeling that you’re not alone.”

Callum Borchers
can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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