I was holding onto every word from SpongeBob SquarePants.
Hey, when the family truckster is in all of its glory during a family vacation, and the only audio spewing out of the 10-speaker Clarke W. Griswold elite package is coming from the mouth of a spongy fictional character with a laugh that feels like somebody is rubbing sandpaper on your brain stem, you would try to follow along too, right?
Fortunately I was able to tear myself away from the Herman Melville-like undersea adventure long enough to see that Google Maps was trying to tell me something. We were on our way back from the Toledo Zoo on I-75 in Michigan, and right from the beginning I noticed our travel time was growing increasingly longer. I kept telling myself the iPhone app must have been losing its mind, because the GPS system on our Griswold delight was not flashing the same warning. All was good, stay the course. Then we hit a brick wall of shiny red taillights, and it quickly became an immovable obstacle course. I glanced down again at my iPhone, and noticed it was suggesting an alternate route, and the exit was 300 ft in front of us. We turned off and soaked in the “short cut” salvation.
Truckers in Alabama either aren’t sure where to go, or are simply sure of themselves. The O’Neal Bridge has been closed to truck and recreational vehicle traffic for quite a while now. The $13 million rehab job has traffic down to one lane in each direction. The Alabama Department of Transportation tried to quick-message drivers to death, setting up variable message boards on routes leading to the bridge in an attempt to create an effective diversion. However, you can’t read a brochure amount of information while passing at 70 mph. Most truckers are using GPS units to chart courses, but the Alabama DOT discovered the units have not been updated to inform about the O’Neal detour. Whether lost or just stubborn, truckers charged at the bridge anyway, and were either ticketed or ended up stuck on the bridge.
So the agency is relying on the old standby—Highway Advisory Radio. Transmitters were put in place in mid-July so drivers could tune into the AM radio frequency and make the necessary adjustments. Of course, the message regarding the use of HAR still needs to be conveyed, and HAR signs out on the highway are not enough. Those blue and white billboards that tell you where to go on the AM dial for highway information are few and far between, making the ones that are actually out there less noticeable because motorists just aren’t used to seeing them. It sounds like the Alabama DOT is using variable message signs to get truckers to tune into HAR, so it just might work, but if the agency is taking this approach I would hope they are lining up eight to 10 of them over a half-mile stretch. One here and one there is not going to be enough.
If you pay for an upgrade on your GPS unit you can receive traffic times and other information right on your dashboard, but those are not 100% reliable, either. There are weather-alert apps out there, and what is really needed is one that could beep traffic alerts at drivers. Once you enter a state on a particular route, some kind of tone would go off, which would be followed by voice instructions telling you of the obstacle, or obstacles, on that route. The driver can then access the instructions at any time during the ride, and this app would allow one to tap on alternate routes on Google Maps. Technology has come a long way, but it can still go further. Take my word for it. R&B
Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.