MnDOT tests I-35 snowplow activation of warning signs

Published 8:00 pm Friday, January 22, 2021

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Minnesota Department of Transportation snowplows on Interstate 35 in southern Minnesota are testing technology that activates digital highway signs to warn motorists when the slow-moving vehicles are ahead on the road.

According to a press release, the goal is to improve highway safety by providing motorists information when they are likely to be approaching a state maintenance vehicle. A digital sign message warns drivers they will be approaching slow-moving MnDOT vehicles, which improves safety by increasing awareness.

Ten MnDOT snowplows on I-35 from Iowa to Northfield were outfitted with technology to activate digital message signs as they pass. During snow events, signs notify drivers: “Snowplow ahead, use caution.” During non-snow conditions, the message alerts: “Maintenance vehicle ahead, use caution.” The message stays activated for several minutes after the MnDOT vehicles pass.

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Snowplows can create “snow clouds” when clearing roads at slower speeds. Warning signs can also be used at other times of year for uses such as maintenance work when crews are repairing high-tension cable median guard or striping roads.

Data from the past few years shows that many crashes involving snowplows were rear-end collisions when motorists strike the back of the snowplow. This technology and warning system could reduce and prevent these types of crashes in the future.

MnDOT snowplows and maintenance vehicles use existing automatic location technology and the signs are equipped to receive the signal that triggers the message when they travel near the sign.

“Alerting motorists that they’re approaching a slow-moving snowplow can improve safety for our operators and motorists,” said Ron Heim, MnDOT maintenance supervisor in Owatonna. “MnDOT is focused on safety and we think this use of technology will help everyone on the road.”

MnDOT will evaluate the technology to determine whether it can be used in other operations. This work builds off previous research by leveraging existing technology, which automatically updates travelers, improving reliability. This technology holds the possibility of exploring future ways to connect with motorists.

“Our trucks are already providing data, so we’re able to build off of that and test this concept,” said Jed Falgren, MnDOT state director for transportation system management and operations. “We can improve safety and this an important test that should show us what can come next.”

This pilot project is part of MnDOT’s connected and automated vehicle research to understand how advancing technology can improve safety. Minnesota is preparing for connected and automated vehicles by observing emerging technology trends and testing those solutions to see how they solve Minnesota transportation challenges. MnDOT’s Connected and Automated Vehicle Office (CAV-X) is the state’s lead office for connected and automated vehicle technology engagement, policy, testing and partnerships.

“This project illustrates one element in a broad range of CAV initiatives and the potential these technologies hold,” said Michael Kronzer, MnDOT CAV-X project manager and Head of Strategic Partnerships. “CAV is so much more than just automated vehicles and MnDOT is interested in helping lead the state to learn, integrate and understand how technology can improve our transportation system, equity, accessibility and safety.”