Technology Increases Safety for Winter Travelers


The Mississippi River Bridge on Interstate 35 in downtown Minneapolis is eight lanes wide, 1,950 feet long and prone to developing dangerous patches of "black ice" during Minnesota's infamous winters.

The bridge is at a major hub in the city near the junction with Interstate 94, the Metrodome sports complex and the University of Minnesota and it carries an average of 139,000 cars and trucks per day, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (DOT).

"One pileup in the morning could cause miles of delays," said John Scharfbillig, a DOT project director.

But the bridge has seen nearly 70 percent fewer snow- and ice- related accidents since Minnesota installed a sophisticated anti-icing system on it before the winter of 2000-2001 a prime example of the many ways U.S. states are using high technology to make their roadways safer.

Many of the new technologies rely on statewide networks of roadway weather stations that relay information electronically to transportation department computers for analysis.

Sensors on the Minneapolis bridge, for instance, relay the air and surface temperatures and the amount of moisture, Scharfbillig said. With the help of a computer program, an anti-icing solvent is automatically sprayed on the span before the surface gets slippery.

Minnesota has a total of six automated anti-icing systems throughout the state and two more are being installed, Scharfbillig said.

Pennsylvania, among many other states, uses its network of roadway weather stations to give travelers real-time information about road conditions throughout the state. Internet users can find out the air temperature, dew point, humidity, precipitation and wind direction and speed at any of 79 sites throughout Pennsylvania. And many sites provide still photos of the road surface, updated every five minutes, said Gary Hoffman, deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania DOT.

The online traveler information, linked to the Roadway Weather Information System, has become popular with Pennsylvania drivers it has had about 1.1 million hits since it was launched in late 2001, said Pennsylvania DOT spokesman Steve Chizner. Moreover, Pennsylvania like Minnesota also has installed eight of the computer-controlled de-icing systems for bridges in the western half of the state.

"Typically, a bridge might be on a curve or on a downgrade. So, when it ices over it becomes a problem," Hoffman said. The bridges also are usually in remote places that road crews cannot reach quickly.

California, Iowa and Nebraska also are considering similar systems or have installed them, said Scharfbillig of Minnesota's DOT.

Many states are also using newer technologies to deploy road crews more efficiently. Iowa is using a complex software package to analyze regional weather forecasts, roadway weather information and specific road characteristics to determine when and where to send snowplows. The computer program also helps determine what kind of road treatment is best for the conditions.

The technology comes with a price, of course. The bridge de-icing systems can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $500,000 depending on their complexity, Scharfbillig said.

But the new systems pay for themselves by reducing the state's liability for accidents, said Hoffman of Pennsylvania. And technology saves the state time and money that might be spent on snowplows. It might take two hours to get a road crew out to clear ice the Minneapolis bridge, Scharfbillig said, but the computer-controlled de-icing is instantaneous.

Travel advocates are cautiously optimistic about the future of the new technologies.

"I know that it's a relatively new program" said Bevi Norris, a spokeswoman for AAA of Central Pennsylvania. "It looks like it's relatively worthwhile. If the research comes back showing it's saved lives or reduced accidents, of course we'll support it."


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