Southwest Minnesota has the highest average wind speeds in the state—bad news for MnDOT snowplow operators who often drive in low-visibility conditions to clear roads.
That’s why District 7 is piloting a snowplow driver-assist system (DAS) developed by U of M researchers to combat the blowing snow and fog that often cause zero visibility. The DAS helps snowplow operators see road alignments and features such as turn lanes, guardrails, and road markings.
The DAS was developed and refined over the past 20 years under multiple research projects funded by MnDOT and the USDOT’s University Transportation Center program. Professor Max Donath, director of the U’s Roadway Safety Institute, led the work.
The DAS uses GPS technology and a front-mounted radar to provide an image of the road and any obstacles in front of the operator. The image is displayed on a monitor inside the cab of the plow. The system also vibrates the operator’s seat as a warning if the plow veers too close to the roadway’s centerline or fog line. The driver can also turn off the warning feature to clear snow from the shoulder.
The DAS is currently installed in one truck in District 7. The $75,000 cost makes it difficult to install in every truck in the district or state, although Chase Fester, District 7 transportation operations supervisor, says having at least one system in every district may be possible.
Fester says the system proved its worth one day in February when blizzard conditions caused zero visibility and forced many road closures in southwest Minnesota. He was called out at 2 a.m. to assist a stranded state trooper and several motorists on a 12-mile stretch of Highway 60 between Windom and Heron Lake. Fester drove a pickup behind the DAS-equipped snowplow, driven by Darryl Oeltjenbruns, to reach them.
As the DAS identified other stranded vehicles on the way to Heron Lake, Fester and Oeltjenbruns checked to make sure they weren’t occupied with people. On the way back to Windom, Fester and the state patrolman continued to check on stranded vehicles as the DAS-equipped snowplow led the way. If the vehicles weren’t in the ditch, motorists drove behind the two MnDOT vehicles. If their vehicles were in the ditch, motorists rode in a Suburban that was also being escorted to Windom.
“When we first went out, there were about six stranded vehicles. Coming back from Heron Lake, there were about 15,” Fester says. “At one time, we had 12 vehicles in line as we drove back to Windom, driving about 10 to 15 miles per hour.”
Later that morning the DAS system was used again to locate other motorists.
For more information, read the full article in the March issue of Catalyst.
(This story was adapted with permission from an article by Sue Roe in MnDOT’s Feb. 17, 2016, Newsline.)