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Warning drivers of weather conditions on the road

A snowy day

Noyce's weather-alert system may be able to warn drivers of upcoming conditions, including blowing snow, icy roads or fog, that could affect their speed and safety as they travel. (15K JPG)

When sudden, intense fog on Interstate 43 in Sheboygan County reduced motorist visibility the morning of Oct. 11, 2002, some drivers slowed down, while others continued at normal freeway speeds. That disparity in speeds, coupled with the blinding fog, resulted in a massive 50-vehicle crash that killed 10 people and injured 50 more, according to a Wisconsin State Patrol investigation.

If drivers had learned of the foggy stretch ahead of time, the crash might never have happened, says UW-Madison Civil and Environmental Engineering Assistant Professor David Noyce.

Noyce, who co-directs the Wisconsin Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory (TOPS), hopes to help drivers predict the future — by warning them of weather-related driving conditions ahead. His project is one of several current TOPS transportation-safety research endeavors.

Traditionally, transportation engineers go out on nice days to evaluate road sites and to predict safety issues. But Noyce's project seeks to incorporate the "not-so-nice" weather variable into the equation. "We're trying to develop a road-weather safety audit procedure which proactively this weather information — on top of engineering elements — so that we can predict where countermeasures might be needed," he says.

And those countermeasures will vary, based on a stretch of road's location, he says. For example, the east-to-west stretch of I-94 between Madison and Milwaukee will have different weather conditions from the I-94 corridor running north to south from Milwaukee to Chicago.

Noyce and TOPS researcher Xiao Quin are working with meteorology colleagues to compile weather data for many state highways, based on historical weather patterns. Then he will tailor solutions to each section of road. "Each corridor is going to have its own different set of operational or technology-based countermeasures," he says.

Noyce also will collaborate with human-factors engineers to determine what technologies will best communicate weather alerts to drivers, as well as where those solutions will reside. The countermeasures could include dynamic roadside signs — such as one that flashes, "Fog ahead, reduce speed to 35 mph." Or perhaps a warning could be incorporated into vehicles' dashboard readout, or drivers' cellular phones, or car radios.

In the Midwest, warnings might alert motorists to heavy snow cover, black ice, blowing snow, fog or rain. Elsewhere around the country, the list also could include blowing dust and debris. "When you take out the unknowns and you increase expectancy of what's coming up, driver error is much less, so drivers can correct their flow and control based on these kinds of conditions," says Todd Szymkowski, TOPS program manager.

When a crash — such as the one on I-43 — occurs, transportation engineers respond by installing a variety of devices designed to prevent a similar incident in the same spot. But Noyce stresses that his research project is geared toward anticipating problems, rather than reacting to them. "What we're trying to do is to be proactive, and say, "Let's not wait for something to happen, but let's develop technologies to prevent that condition from forming,'" he says.

"We're simply trying to keep people alive in these types of situations."


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3/28/2005