March 26, 2010 By Russell Nichols
After months of harsh winter weather, Missouri transportation officials found a silver lining in the form of the state's 13 new high-tech weather sensors dotting Interstate 44.
For the past few months, the sensors have been providing road crews with instant access to weather conditions so they can better manage their time and make the roads safer for motorists. The sensors, installed roadside, provide data on air and subsurface temperatures, wind speed and direction, precipitation type and intensity, visibility, relative humidity and barometric pressure.
It cost the state about $451,000 to build this road weather information system, but the devices are helping enhance road crew management efforts and saving taxpayers thousands of dollars, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT).
"Years ago, you'd get the weather report and send snowplows to the spot," said MoDOT Spokesman Jorma Duran. "And you'd end up keeping them in that area through the storm -- when, in reality, they could have been used somewhere else. Now we're able to better manage snow crews to go to the roads that need to be cleared. These roads have never been safer during the winter."
MoDOT's project is part of an expanding field of surface transportation sensor technologies. Numerous states utilize these tools, officials said, which can measure weather and transportation surface conditions in real time to improve traveler safety, mobility and affect how roadway crews manage tasks.
Missouri now has a total of 16 environmental sensor stations: 14 installed along I-44, one on Interstate 70 in St. Louis and one on Route 36 in St. Joseph, Mo. In a recent winter storm, the sensors captured data showing that the temperatures along I-44 were above freezing. With that information, snow crews determined they only needed to treat the bridges with salt and chemicals instead of the entire route, saving money and time.
"Whenever a state has to handle a snowstorm, that storm can cost millions of dollars to clear away," Duran said. "Instant real-time weather information allows snow-fighting crews to clear roads, treat roads and save money while doing it."
Currently the weather data is only used in an internal network, he added. But in the future, it could be released to the public. And road crews don't plan to use the sensors only in the wintertime. According to Duran, various road projects, such as painting the centerline or edge line stripes, should be done above certain temperatures, so the sensors will keep work crews informed throughout the year.
"Paving a roadway, for example," he said. "You're not going to have a good workday if you're trying to pave a road in less than 32 degrees Fahrenheit."
Every year, more than 673,000 people are injured in weather-related crashes, and nearly 7,400 people are killed, according to a study based on National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.
"That's a moderate-sized town every year gone, wiped off the map," said Mark A. Askelson, an associate professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. "There are a lot of things that need to be done and worked on if you hope to make a dent in those numbers and save lives."
In 2008, a report co-authored by Askelson proposed a regional test bed for surface transportation weather technologies. As a collaborative initiative including North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the test bed would allow the states to develop strategies in a wide array of weather hazards, leverage existing sensor networks in rural and urban environments, and utilize special facilities.
Similar efforts, Askelson said, have been proposed in other areas of the country. But so far, Askelson's test bed pitch hasn't gotten off the ground.
"We put it out there," he said. "Pieces exist already, and there's certain resources in those areas that would help us attack the problems. But when you try to bring that many people together, it takes time."
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