Safety & Accident

State DOTs Tracking El Niño to Prepare Roads for Winter

December 21, 2015

As much as 70% of state Departments of Transportation surveyed by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials reported tracking El Niño to make preparations for the unusual winter weather ahead.

Of the 41 DOTs surveyed, 40% have increased salt and deicing chemical supplies in anticipation of more snow and ice, while 90% reported using Road Weather Information System sensor technology to track atmosphere and road conditions. The RWIS sensors are attached to maintenance vehicles, located on weather stations or embedded in roadways and bridges to collect and transmit data about the local conditions.

The data can also be used to give maintenance officials information on when and where to deploy equipment to plow roads or apply salt and other de-icing chemicals.

“We know there’s going to be impacts due to El Niño this season,” said Rick Nelson, AASHTO snow and ice cooperative program manager. “There’s also a lot of uncertainty about when and how the roads in each state will be impacted. “

El Niño weather patterns typically bring wetter weather to the Pacific Coast and southern U.S., according to experts cited by AASHTO. Temperatures in the North will be warmer than usual while the South will be cooler than normal.

“We’ve already seen flooding and mudslides in the Pacific Northwest and early snowfalls and warmer temperatures in other parts of the country,” said Nelson. “State DOTs are preparing for whatever happens and at the same time they’re also hoping for the best.”

More than 70% of survey respondents also indicated that their agency is using social media to educate and prepare travelers about winter weather, and 73% reported their agency is using a mobile app to keep motorist informed about current road conditions. For example, in Iowa the DOT disseminates information through its 511 traveler information system, which is accessible through its website, social media and mobile app.

“Motorists are using 511 to plan their trips throughout the year — and during winter it’s especially helpful because drivers can get up to date information about road conditions, the locations of traffic incidents and closures and travel speeds on sections of roadway,” said Andrea Henry, Iowa DOT communications director.

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