Visiting MN/DOT

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Now that’s a truck! I actually climbed into that giant snowplow! I’ll admit it was pretty cool.

Fully loaded, this truck is about 40,000 pounds. There are about 500 of these trucks statewide and 150 in the metro area. There are 18 truck stations, so they’re housed in various locations, closer to the areas that they plow. They hold about 5 yards of salt each. The salt mixture is about 90% salt. It might be KCL, MgCl, NaCl or some other salt that is determined by the temperature. It takes four times more energy to break a bond of ice to the pavement, so they try to pre-treat roads whenever possible. Even with the long blade and wing, the plow width is about 12 feet. When they’re lined up and plowing in tandem, it’s called gang plowing. It’s a pretty cool site to see the gang plowing. (But kind of freaky if you see them in your rearview mirror.)

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This is a FIRST – Freeway Incident Response Safety Team truck. The team covers 220 miles of freeway in the metro area. They’re working from about 3:30am until 9pm. There job is to clear a vehicle from the lane and keep traffic moving. If there is an incident, they have a sign on the top of the cab that tilts up so people can see if they need to move over or slow down. The signs are more visible so they often work in conjunction with the highway patrol. Most of the workers have first responder or EMT training. The trucks are equipped with an AED, first aid kit, antifreeze in winter, water in summer, gasoline, orange cones, flairs and various other supplies to help in an emergency.

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We were at the Regional Transportation Center for the Department of Transportation today. This is one of the top three traffic management centers in the country. We started outside with the trucks, then went inside to see the call center and get information about what all they do.

They have 550 – 580 cameras that they use to cover the metro area. You had an odd sense of “big brother” watching while learning about this. If there is an incident, they use a nearby camera to locate it. They are about to zoom in and change the direction of the camera. This allows them to “size up” the situation and decide whether to dispatch a FIRST truck or law enforcement.

“For every 1 minute of incident, it takes 4 minutes to recover.”

I think that’s a pretty interesting statistic to keep in mind while on the road. The people at the traffic control center are also the ones that can control the meters onto or between freeways. There are loop detectors in the pavement that detect volume and speed data for traffic. With this they calculate the timing of meters as well as the CMS (Changeable Message Sign) that approximates the time to the river, another major highway, etc.

One of the most helpful things to learn today was that all states need to have 511 traffic information. So to get info for your state, just replace the state initials with your own state initials. For mine it’s 511mn.org. Select full feature, and check it out. If you are driving in another area of your state or another state, type in the appropriate state site and get the latest information on construction and road conditions. There will be an app coming out for phones, hopefully later in the year.

While we were there we also got to see the DOT version of stupid driver videos. There’s all sorts of crazy things that these cameras capture. They’ve amassed quite a highlight reel. Some of them are kind of scary since they involve crashes. But they only showed us the ones with good outcomes.

I liked this visit. There was a lot of information that I can use personally. Plus, I can pass on a lot of this information to my students and friends. I’ve already booked-marked the 511mn.org page on my computer. Learning that one thing was worth the visit alone!

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