EDITORIAL: Performing miracles?

Jan. 15, 2014

The cold snow quickly becomes the spit of demons on the basketball court.

The cold snow quickly becomes the spit of demons on the basketball court.

When the flakes on the bottom of boots finally lose their adhesion, some of it ends up on the hardwood, and then comes the puddle of terror. All it takes is one unsuspecting high-top stepping on the wrong spot, and then you have a high-ankle injury. I saw the potential of the devil’s doing numerous times at my son’s basketball tournament during one of winter’s finest moments so far on an early Saturday morning. Fortunately, the courts shone like a halo—a dry one, of course. Out on the road, the cold snow quickly turned into all kinds of evil shenanigans. There were spots of packed flakes, streaks of slush and patches of ice. With the forecast the night before holding true, I expected crews would attempt to get out ahead of the mess, particularly on the Illinois Tollway’s I-90 and I-294/94. A Johnny-on-the-spot towel wipe helps on the basketball court. What crews needed here were snowplows, some perhaps manned by a Johnny, keeping an eye on any and all trouble spots. New technology could be on its way to offer just a service—and there is a name for it.

Four states—Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and New York—are using a next-generation winter-maintenance tool during the 2013-14 cold months. Called the Pikalert Enhanced Maintenance Decision Support System (insert nickname here, or just say EMDSS), the system combines snowplow-sensor measurements with satellite and radar observations and computer weather models. It was proudly built by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), and the pilot program is being funded by the U.S. DOT. If successful, EMDSS could be available to the private sector, which plays a critical role in working with towns and cities to clear the streets as soon as possible. The hope is to give public works officials a clear picture of where the trouble spots are and avoid any high-flying accidents.

NCAR claims wintry-weather car crashes cause more than 4,000 fatalities and hundreds and thousands of injuries in the U.S. each year.

Currently, transportation officials’ ground-based observation stations are sometimes positioned up to 60 miles apart and can lack critical information about road conditions. The EMDSS would provide updates every five to 15 minutes, alerting those in charge of potential winter hazards before they turn into pileups—and if you want to see one that will have you white-knuckling your laptop, go to www?.youtube.com/watch?v=mgvOHnujspg.

Of course, more accurate pinpointing may lead to harsher finger-pointing from the motoring public. As soon as word gets out that public works departments can sniff out an evil patch of ice almost instantly, calls will pile up demanding action. What the average citizen doesn’t know is how difficult it is to rally the troops. As soon as trouble is detected, the signal will be sent to the closest set of snowplows. It will still take time to mobilize, and I think the high expectations will bury any feat the department might be able to pull off.
The other factor here is cost. The U.S. DOT will not be supplying every public works garage with a free box of sensors. The dollars needed to implement such a technology will have to be factored in, and if I had to guess many will not have the luxury to put in a rush order. Instead those who really want it will just have to wait—and salivate. R&B