Archived Story

Editorial: MnDOT needs to be pro-active with winter safety

Published 8:02pm Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why is it that the Minnesota Department of Transportation is a reactive unit of government instead of a pro-active unit of government when it comes to travel safety during weather?

Each and every time blizzards and snowstorms are predicted to move across the prairie of southern Minnesota, MnDOT issues no travel advisory until after the storms hit and motorists are caught on the roads. Each and every time blizzards and snowstorms are predicted to move across the prairie of southern Minnesota, MnDOT does nothing to close freeways until after scores of automobiles and semi trucks are in the ditches. Each and every time blizzards and snowstorms are predicted to move across the prairie of southern Minnesota, MnDOT leaves the National Weather Service to do all the pro-active warning work.

We know the point of having roads is to get people to their destinations, and MnDOT could be commended for having an institutional bias in favor of doing just that. However, there ought be an institutional bias in favor of travel safety and saving dollars.

It seems MnDOT could save time and effort of state troopers and sheriff’s deputies having to rescue motorists from freeways and highways by closing more roads in advance of whiteout or icy conditions. Thanks to 21st century technology, the transportation staff ought to be able to tell when road conditions will become dangerous, rather than waiting until they turn dangerous.

Why have gates on the freeways if MnDOT is reticent to use them? This is the coldest winter in Minnesota in 35 years and the 10th coldest on record, yet the freeways have closed only occasionally and usually after the conditions were hazardous and motorists already had to survive hours in frigid ditches. In fact, there was widespread confusion Friday and Saturday over the open-or-closed status of the Owatonna-to-Albert Lea stretch. MnDOT media releases would say it was closed, while the department’s website said it was open and Facebook posters were saying cars and trucks were traveling on it.

It must seriously concern transportation officials to see 126 cars off the road in Mower and Freeborn counties alone, as well as 1,000 crashes across the state and another 2,300 that spun out. Someone in charge at MnDOT must ask: What can we do better next time?

If the state wants people to stay off the roads when conditions turn ugly, close the roads before they turn ugly. It’s that simple.

It’s clear the Minnesota Department of Transportation needs to shake up the way it handles winter traffic emergencies and come up with an all-new, safety-first, pro-active standard operating procedure.