Catherine W. Idzerda" />

New program helps plow drivers improve performance, keeps roads safer

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Saturday, January 21, 2012
— In their top-secret headquarters, highly trained intelligence specialists keep their eyes on the roads, tracking movement, temperature, wind speed and the distribution of experienced agents in the field.

Well, not quite.

The headquarters aren’t top secret. They’re in the Rock County Highway Division building off Highway 14.

And the intelligence specialists are guys wearing work boots, jeans, flannel and hooded sweatshirts.

But the rest is true.

This year, the Rock County Highway Department is using global positioning system technology combined with automatic vehicle locators and a computer program called the Maintenance Decision Support System (MDSS) to help its snowplowing efforts.

The system will change the way plow drivers—those experienced agents in the field—handle plowing, salting and sanding.

It also has the potential to save the county money, said Neil Pierce, highway superintendent for Rock County.

Here’s how the MDSS works:

Each snowplow has an automatic vehicle locator on board. A small box with a digital readout is connected to the locator and provides road and air temperature.

That information is relayed to the highway department, where Pierce or one of his co-workers can see it on a computer map. They can see if the plow is up or down and check the amount of sand, salt or salt brine being used.

For eight routes, all state highways, even more information is available.

For those routes, a spreadsheet with time markers shows condition information such as air and pavement temperature, precipitation types, snow rate, snow probability, precipitation probability, bridge frost watch, amount of snow or ice pack on the road and even a recommended treatment.

The information and predictions about future road conditions comes from the National Weather Service, information from the trucks on the road, remote weather stations along the highways and highway cameras.

Users also can see what’s going on just over the county line in Dane, Walworth and Green counties.

For officials, the system means better response time to trouble spots and helps prevent problems from occurring.

For example, if conditions later in the day are expected to create frost and ice on bridges, the plows can be sent out in advance to put down a layer of salt brine.

“The brine helps the bond from forming between ice and the road,” Pierce said.

Here’s another example: If the system predicts dropping temperatures and increasing wind, plows might be sent to Highway 11/14, where drifting often is a problem.

The plow drivers like it, too.

“The road temperature tells me how much salt I need to put down,” said Lucas Ransom, a second-year plow driver.

Ransom has been through three or four snow events with the new system.

Research at the UW-Madison Traffic Operations and Safety Lab showed that the new technology could reduce salt use from 6 to 9 percent, according to a news release from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

Downtown gets 5 inches of snow

Downtown Janesville business owners were shoveling and sweeping five inches of powdery snow from sidewalks by 8 p.m. Friday night when the daylong storm ended. Unlike in mid-January, the temperature Friday was below normal for the time of year. The rooftop temperature at 9 p.m. at The Gazette, 1 S. Parker Drive, was 6 degrees. That was the high for the day.

By 9 p.m., things had quieted down considerably for Rock County Communications Center dispatchers. No crashes with major injuries were reported by that time. Callers did report many cars that had slid into ditches in rural Rock County.

Around 7 p.m., drivers reported a van at the bottom of a hill near River Road and Highway 14 in Janesville Township west of the city. First responders did not find any passengers or any indication of injuries, according to dispatch reports.

The National Weather Service predicts sunny skies today with a high of 21 degrees. The weather service predicts a wintry mix of snow and freezing rain Sunday with temperatures in the low to mid 30s.

Last updated: 7:16 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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