The next time you're sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a highway, think about how we need to make smarter decisions about how we manage traffic. The technology exists -- if it's used in the right way -- to decrease traffic backups. But you can't solve traffic problems until you understand them. 

Mobile devices could analyze all the Big Data generated daily in cities, allowing municipalities to better understand traffic flow and transportation networks. The potential is there to see how many cars are on the road at any given location and even how specific models of cars perform in different environments, at any given time. 

In order for cities and their residents to really benefit from this sort of information, car manufacturers need to work with transportation agencies, emergency responders and city planners to collect, integrate and share data. 

If a car breaks down on an interstate, sensors installed in the vehicle could pick up on the problem and immediately notify traffic authorities of a possible slowdown. Other drivers on the road could be warned about a disabled vehicle almost instantaneously, instead of waiting until they’re stuck in gridlock traffic for more than 20 minutes. In the future, if a driver has a seizure or heart attack, sensors on a steering wheel may detect the event and notify emergency responders. 

Just as the internet was first made up of a network of computers, a network of smart devices will fundamentally change how we drive, and more importantly, how we live. 

It probably sounds like a vision of the distant future, but it could just be around the corner. Much of this technology has been successfully tested, it just needs to be put to use. IBM recently completed a trial with the city of Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, in which smart devices were installed in about 200 cars. Over a period of six months, 1.8 billion sensor signals detected 48,000 traffic incidents, including icy roads, potholes, fog or even hazard lights. 

The benefits are beyond just having better traffic management. Insight from all the Big Data collected from mobile devices connected to sensors could improve road safety. City planners and transit agencies could use the information to build new housing developments or public transportation routes. Emergency responders and law enforcement officials could get a more accurate sense of how to use their resources. And chances are, much of that info could be stored in a cloud to help make cities smarter. 

The data could also be a boon for auto manufacturers, who would get a detailed understanding of how their cars perform in a variety of environments, since the devices could collect braking, acceleration and location-based data. 

There’s also a trickle-down effect for a wide range of industries, including airlines, airports, retailers or even healthcare providers, who could use blood pressure or heart rate data collected by the car through the seat belt, steering wheel, or drivers’ seats. 

Traffic is an unfortunate fact of modern life. As long as people need to travel, traffic will exist. But instead of just sitting in traffic, we can act to reduce congestion and make our roads safer.