It's a fairly good bet that Minnesota won't see a blizzard or snow squall the rest of this spring, but should a freak storm arise, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is ready to alert drivers quickly.
The agency has automated the process in which it takes warnings from the National Weather Service and relays them to motorists by posting messages on electronic sign boards across the state.
For the past couple of winters, MnDOT has used its 400 digital signs to broadcast blizzard warnings. And until this year, that job of updating signs fell primarily to Garrett Schreiner, a freeway operations engineer. Each time a blizzard struck, Schreiner headed to his computer to determine which areas of the state were being impacted and which signs were in the affected areas. Then he crafted and posted a message.
"I have to monitor every winter storm," he said. "Thankfully there are not a ton of blizzards, so it's doable."
But all those steps take time and manpower, which ultimately delays how quickly messages get out to the public. Schreiner and others wondered if they could automate the process.
MnDOT collaborated with SRF Consulting to develop traffic management software capable of parsing feeds from the weather service. When the software comes across a blizzard warning, it determines the location and time of the warning and composes the appropriate message. A MnDOT staff member in the Regional Transportation Management Center in Roseville can review and manually post the message to signs in the impacted area, or turn on a feature that allows the software to do it automatically. The software can also update messages as weather conditions change, Schreiner said.
"We cut the time it takes to get messages out to travelers," he said.
MnDOT tested the software during an early January blizzard that socked much of the state and found that it worked well. The plan is to use it statewide this winter, Schreiner said.
MnDOT generally uses the signs only to announce real-time information about crashes, closures, road hazards or how long it will take drivers to reach a specific destination. Agency officials wondered if drivers would take weather messages seriously if it posted too many of them.
A survey to determine how effective digital messages were during blizzards drew 406 responses from drivers from the Twin Cities, across Minnesota and other states. More than half of respondents said they had seen a blizzard warning on a digital sign and reported seeing it two to three times. Three-quarters of those who were not aware of a blizzard before they set out said they found the messages to be "helpful" or "very helpful." Half of those who knew about a blizzard before traveling reported messages were helpful or very helpful. Most respondents said the messages were more effective than alerts broadcast by other media, a MnDOT report said.
"The survey results helped MnDOT determine the best way to display winter weather conditions … and that messages are displayed accurately and on time," said Brian Kary, director of traffic operations.
Schreiner said winter driving hazards such as freezing rain, fog and winter storms "having a big impact" on travel may be considered for automation.
The system "opens up the door for displaying summer warnings," he said, "but we don't think we'd use it for that."
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