Wherever you are in the United States, winter is coming, and for some parts of the country it’s already here. That brings festivities, good cheer, and in at least 70 percent of the country, snow and ice on the roads. While you may think those big, old plow trucks look like something vaguely Jurassic and definitely old fashioned, there is an awful lot of high tech stuff in those plows, helping to keep our roads safe and traffic moving during these winter months.
Of course, all vehicles are a lot more high-tech than they were 10 years ago, but the whole winter maintenance field is undergoing a bit of a revolution with respect to technology. That new technology is beginning to have a profound and beneficial effect not only on your local streets department or highway agency, but also on the safety of the roads in winter, and the ease with which we can travel on them. Salting and plowing can reduce crashes by up to 88 percent in winter storm conditions, and that is a level of safety we can all appreciate.
Some of those changes can be quite obvious to us, as in the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) “Track a plow” website. On that website, anyone can see in near real time where any of the Iowa DOT trucks are located. For many of those trucks, you can also view a photograph taken through the windshield of the truck, which is updated every five minutes, so you get a real idea of what the actual road conditions look like. You can also see which trucks are applying materials to the road (and whether it is a solid or a liquid) and in what quantities. As Dr. Anna Arvidsson of VTI, the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute, said of the website, “Wow, that is so cool. I could not even get access to historical data from snowplows in Sweden. And here I can see temperatures both air and surface and spread amount.”
The value of this sort of system to road users is pretty obvious — we can see what the roads are like for ourselves along the route we are planning on taking, and thus make a well-informed decision as to whether we should allow more time for our trip, or perhaps simply stay home. The City of Chicago has a similar system that allows city residents (and anyone else who is interested) to see where the city plows are in near real time.
The benefits of the system extend to commercial transportation as well. A severe winter storm that closes down roads across a whole state may cost the economy up to $700 million per day, so knowing the conditions of the roads can be very important.
But there is another area in which technology is bringing huge changes in winter maintenance, and that is in the whole arena of managing resources. Increasingly, the salt spreaders on the back of those plow trucks are computer controlled, and the computers track not just how much material they are putting down on the road, but where they are placing it, so environmentally sensitive areas can be protected more effectively.
These devices are also tracking the condition of the road surface itself, measuring the pavement temperature (which, much more so than the air temperature determines how effective salt will be when it is placed on the pavement, and guides how much salt should be applied) and in some cases, even measuring the grip of the pavement (how slippery it is) and using that information directly to adjust the application rate.
This new technology allows agencies to provide the level of service on the roads the public wants and needs, while controlling costs and essentially eliminating any environmental concerns about salt use. Kevin Hensley, the stormwater supervisor for the City of West Des Moines, noted new technology allows their agency to manage their activities much better because they can measure what they are doing so much more effectively. “If we can measure it, then we can manage it so much better,” he says.
Better management has some real bottom line benefits for taxpayers, too. “We have decreased our per-storm maintenance costs by between 30 and 50 percent while providing an improved level of service to our community,” says Bret Hodne, the director of Public Works for the City of West Des Moines. Those sorts of savings will keep you feeling warm and toasty inside, no matter how chilly the winter weather gets!