Motorists wanting information about current road conditions or travel hazards in southeastern Minnesota can now get it through an e-mail or text message.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation officially launched the subscription service Tuesday — ironically, just as a winter storm rolled through parts of the state, slathering roads in snow and ice.
MnDOT is testing the notification system as a pilot in the 11 counties that make up District 6, which includes Albert Lea, Faribault, Owatonna, Red Wing, Rochester, Wabasha and Winona.
"It's another way MnDOT can get good information out to people so they can make smart driving decisions," said spokesman Mike Dougherty.
Motorists must sign up at dot.state.mn.us/d6 and click a link under "Winter Driving Updates" to receive the alerts, which will be issued for significant weather-related events such as crashes, drifting snow, icy roads or visibility issues that might make travel difficult or close highways.
But not to worry, Dougherty says. MnDOT won't inundate motorists' inboxes or ping their phones too often.
"It will be more like when we run into situations like when we have a jackknifed semi on I-35 or there is drifting that may close lanes in a rural area," he said. "We will focus on things that will alter your travel, more than when you look out the window, see it snowing and wonder if I should slow down."
Dougherty said drivers in southeastern Minnesota have been wanting a texting service, which gave rise to the pilot. MnDOT already collects e-mail addresses to send out updates on construction projects to those who subscribe. In-house technicians adapted the program to accept cellphone numbers, too.
"It's exciting because people have their cellphones with them most of the time," Dougherty said.
But MnDOT wants drivers to read text messages before getting behind the wheel, not while they're on the road, he said.
Minnesota's hands-free law prohibits motorists from having a cellphone or other electronic device in their hands while at the wheel. They may touch their phones once to make a call, send voice-activated text messages or listen to podcasts. But multiple touches, such as dialing a phone number or punching in GPS coordinates, aren't allowed; reading e-mails and text messages behind the wheel is illegal, too.
Interstates 90 and 35 and Hwy. 52 all see heavy traffic and are prone to the effects of winter weather, making southeastern Minnesota the perfect region for the pilot, Dougherty said.
The service could be helpful not only for travelers but for truckers and dispatchers sending drivers into the area. It also might be interesting for anyone who wants to "watch the region" even if they don't live there, Dougherty said. Nearly 1,000 people signed up in the first two days the service was widely promoted.
If all goes well. the service could be expanded to other parts of the state, but a lot of that will depend on feedback from users, he said.
For now, motorists elsewhere can find travel information at 511mn.org and its companion mobile app. MnDOT recently upgraded the site with new icons pointing to road work and detailed descriptions about travel impacts. It also features camera views from snowplows and, of course, the current road conditions.
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