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Some winter weather alerts will be automatically posted on MnDOT's highway signs

Previously, a MnDOT staff member had to pay attention to the weather and enter the alert for the appropriate areas, delaying how quickly messages got to the public.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation has automated its process to display blizzard warnings and other major weather alerts on its electronic highway signs.

MnDOT has nearly 400 dynamic message signs (DMS) around the state that display messages alerting motorists about safety issues (the creative messages on Mondays reminding people to put down their phones or buckle their seat belts), road construction and crashes. 

And when a major weather event is happening, like a blizzard warning, it displays that too. But in order to get the alert on the sign, a staff member had to pay attention to the weather and go to their computer to manually enter the warning for the electronic signs in the alert area, MnDOT said in its Crossroads transportation research blog.   

"I have to monitor every winter storm," Garrett Schreiner, a freeway operations engineer who was primarily the one tasked at crafting the messages for the appropriate signs, told the Star Tribune. "Thankfully there are not a ton of blizzards, so it's doable."

This process had MnDOT concerned the warnings weren't getting out to motorists quickly enough, so it began investigating how to automate the process.

It surveyed what other states were doing (more than half surveyed manually entered weather alerts) and assessed the public's perception of DMS weather warnings. MnDOT surveyed 406 people, finding three-quarters of them who saw blizzard warnings on DMS found them helpful or very helpful, while more than half of motorists who saw the alert drove with extra caution and one-quarter of them decided to return home. 

MnDOT says this shows people are paying attention to the DMS warnings and change their behavior because of it. 

“The survey results helped MnDOT determine the best way to display winter weather conditions on our dynamic message signs. Automating the process to get National Weather Service alerts on the signs will ensure that messages are displayed accurately and on time,” Brian Kary, director, Traffic Operations, MnDOT Regional Transportation Management Center, said in the Crossroads blog.

To automate the highway DMS weather alerts, MnDOT hired a consultant that developed a software system called the Road Weather Message System. The system pulls National Weather Service alerts, describes them and selects the signs in the impacted areas to convey the weather warning to motorists, the blog says. 

The DMS weather messages are automatically updated when the National Weather Services updates its alert and are removed automatically when the alert expires. 

MnDOT said this new process was used for the first time in January and it "functioned as expected."

At this time, MnDOT says it only plans to post alert messages for blizzards and snow squalls on its highway signs. The department will continue to examine the effectiveness and benefits of automated DMS messages and may add additional weather alerts, such as freezing rain or fog. 

MnDOT is also going to examine motorists' driving behavior before and after a message is displayed on the highway signs.

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