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BURLINGTON, Vt. — Highway managers in three New England states are testing a system to automatically alert truckers and passenger car drivers whenever they’re approaching a plow during the region’s often-blinding blizzards.

The system, built off Google’s Waze app, will allow the driving public to report road conditions back to transportation managers, who can then more effectively deploy salt and plow trucks. Via Waze and the 511 system, other drivers will also be able to see those crowdsourced road condition reports, potentially reducing crashes and improving safety.

Along with Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine are also testing the new system this year.

It’s a far cry from the days when maintenance foremen had to personally brave treacherous, winding roads to check conditions or when drivers had no idea what was around the next bend.

Today, maintenance workers in many states can call up websites showing real-time images, current weather conditions, and even the exact  temperature of the road itself, and then quickly alert drivers with overhead or roadside electronic message boards.

The specific conditions on the road dictate whether plow drivers drop granulated salt or use chemical de-icers, said Robert T. White, a senior manager with the Vermont Agency of Transportation. When roads are cold but dry, liquid de-icers work best, he said, while granulated salt is more effective on snow-covered roads. Loading the trucks with the wrong treatment slows roads-clearing efforts, White said.

“Instead of having to send people out, the guys can sit in the office, pull up the information, and then we can send the trucks out with the right materials,” White said.

By using intelligent transportation systems, including integration with traffic-conditions app Waze, transportation departments are trying to leverage technology to improve safety for the traveling public, while containing costs. 

Many snowplows across the country are equipped with sensors tracking their exact location, whether the plow blade is up or down, and even how much salt or liquid de-icer their driver has dropped during a certain period. White said some regions in Vermont have used 15% less salt and de-icer as a result of the advanced monitoring and deployment systems.

“Technology has changed winter services across the board,”  Rich Roman, maintenance and operations director for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, told the Pew Charitable Trust’s Stateline news service.

“Look inside a plow truck — it almost looks like the cockpit of an airplane, with knobs and controls and radio communication.”

Last winter, highway departments across 23 states reported spending $1.13 billion to plow, treat and clear roadways, according to a first-ever comprehensive study by  American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Technology helps keep those costs down by allowing supervisors to dispatch trucks to where they’re most needed, or halt salting operations if road temperatures have risen above freezing.

It can also reduce overtime and maintenance spending by limiting the amount of driving by plow operators.

White said Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire plan to tie their intelligent transportation systems together, incorporating Waze, by January or February 2016, and hope to add the rest of the New England states in 2018.

Denver’s ski route

Other states are using similar technology. In California, drivers can access QuickMap, which displays real-time road conditions and crashes on a computer map, while Colorado’s CDOT Mobile app shows drive time between Denver and the state’s ski areas, along with weather forecasts and locations of trucker chain-up stations.

Colorado has also installed traction sensors along a heavily used and often dangerous section of Interstate 70, allowing road managers to more quickly decide whether to temporarily mandate the use of snow tires and tire chains, and is working to install similar sensors on 40 plow trucks assigned to the area, said spokeswoman Amy Ford.

White said Vermont is also using a supercomputer to model how climate change is affecting the Green Mountain State’s traditionally snowy winters. Vermont isn’t expecting a white Christmas this year, and temperatures for Dec. 25 are expected to hit the unusually mild mid-50s, forecasters say.

White said the computer models are predicting a similar winter as last year: very little snow early on but ice storms in January and February.

Of course, technology only goes so far. Mother Nature still maintains the upper hand, and this year she’s given most of the country a warm, dry winter.

“It’s very good for business, keeping down the salt and maintenance costs,” White said with a laugh.

Follow Trevor Hughes @trevorhughes

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