Highway crashes on Wyoming Interstates are a common occurrence, but the back to back multiple vehicle crashes last month even got the attention of locals. It led to the latest discussion about traffic safety and whether more could be done. But experts say that highway safety, especially when it comes to interstate 80 has been on the minds of state Transportation officials for some time.
I-80 is the busiest highway in Wyoming and it’s the stretch of highway that consistently features the most severe weather in the state. When you mix heavy traffic with fog, slush, ice, and high winds it’s a recipe for disaster. Even so, Wyoming Department of Transportation Director John Cox said when there’s back to back multiple vehicle crashes like they saw in April it certainly gets their attention.
“It spurs yet another conversation, what have we done. Is there anything technologically, or boots on the ground more that we could do. Is there anything on the engineering or construction side we could do? So it’s really kind of a constant ongoing conversation.”
Cox said there is always a debate over whether the road should be closed more often. Business leaders and citizens have pushed back against road closures and legislators have been reluctant to spend money to fund more troopers, although Cox quickly added that better enforcement would certainly help. But he said one recent less expensive change has made a difference and he believes it has saved lives. It’s called the variable speed limit. On many sections on Interstate 80 the Highway Department have installed new digital speed limit signs that allows them to change the speed limit in seconds.
“The sheer number of crashes has reduced, the number of multiple vehicle crashes has reduced, and the number of fatalities over the stretches where we have the VSL in place has dramatically reduced.”
A recent University of Wyoming study indicated that they’ve seen approximately 35 less crashes a year in variable speed limit zones. Cox noted the fact that the speed limit was set at 45 in a multi-vehicle crash between Laramie and Cheyenne in April probably saved lives. He said a similar pileup that occurred west of Laramie was not in a variable speed limit area.
“Somebody drove into the fog bank and piled it up and then the chain reaction began. And so people were driving into an area where there was limited visibility but there again their entrance speed was probably considerably higher and here we go with a fatality.”
Variable speed limits is just one part of a major effort undertaken in the last few years by the Wyoming Department of Transportation to reduce crashes and fatalities.
This is WYDOT’s Traffic Management Center or the TMC. It features a number of large screens that show highways across the state, other screens that display measurements of average speed on various highways, data such as highway temperature. It also allows them to communicate with highway maintenance workers, the Highway Patrol, and drivers. It’s here that they compile and send out information about highway conditions and set the variable speeds. Vince Garcia is in charge of the effort. He said they adjust speeds using a formula that makes the highway as speedy and safe as possible.
“Put the math together to make a recommendation that would be most appropriate to slow down a vehicle or basically the distances it needs to stop in time.”
They can make these changes within seconds. With five people constantly monitoring all the sections of the state and communicating with those on the ground, the TMC’s Suzie Roseberry said they can update road conditions quickly.
“Once those conditions are updated it blasts that out to our phone system, to our text and emailing messaging system, to the website, the map, we have some new smart TV’s that are being put up around the state in various locations that give kind of a worse case overview for the general area, it goes out to those as well.”
They also send information to truck dispatchers and use huge monitors along the highway to tell motorists about approaching conditions and future weather updates. Garcia points out that they know that the text and emailing system alone sends out 36 million messages in the winter, the website got about 600 million hits in the winter months. And they are developing an app.
“We know that there’s a potential for people to be distracted so we’re building it so that it will have hands free, eye free operation. A person basically will turn it on, tell the system they want to be alerted x number of miles in advance of an event, and the system will read it to them as they are coming on it.”
But there is only so much they can do.
“It only takes one driver to make a mess.”
WYDOT Director John Cox said the messaging systems and variable speed limits only work if people pay attention to them, which is not always the case. He said that’s one reason he continues to support increased enforcement on the highway.