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A Pennsylvania alert system to reach stranded motorists is coming to Maryland

Motorists trapped overnight in January on an icy Interstate 95 in Virginia complained they weren’t told what was happening. A Pennsylvania official explains how his state communicates directly with stranded motorists.

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The hundreds of vehicles trapped overnight on an icy Interstate 95 in Virginia last month — and complaints from motorists that they weren’t told what was happening or when they would move again — looked and sounded familiar to Pennsylvania highway officials.

In 2016, about 500 vehicles ended up stranded along a dozen miles of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, some for more than a day, after tractor-trailers jackknifed during a snowstorm. Shortly after, the state sought a way to directly communicate with motorists stuck in hours-long queues.

Pennsylvania transportation officials developed the system, known as 511PAConnect, with a New Jersey company called Information Logistics. It sends an alert to cellphones in the area of a prolonged road closure — typically after vehicles have been stuck for about two hours — with details of the problem and a link to sign up for text message updates. It then allows motorists to text directly with state highway officials, such as to tell them where they are trapped and whether they need gasoline, baby formula or other help.

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It also uses data from INRIX, a Seattle-area traffic analytics firm, to determine the extent of the gridlock.

Information Logistics has since set up similar systems for highway agencies in New Jersey and Georgia, where the company says they have been used for storms, major collisions, vehicle fires and brush fires. Texas and Ohio have recently activated their alert capabilities.

Maryland is planning to implement the system this summer, and a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation said the agency is exploring similar options.

Douglas Tomlinson, Pennsylvania’s chief of highway safety and traffic operations, discussed how the system works — and why he believes it’s worth the investment. The interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: Could you tell us more about the event that led Pennsylvania to implement this system?

A: We had a significant winter storm in Pennsylvania in January 2016, known as Winter Storm Jonas. It was a situation on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. They had somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 vehicles, some of which were stranded for more than a day and up to two days. It crossed over approximately 12 miles of the turnpike. Following that, we knew we wanted to develop some type of system to better communicate to motorists that were trapped in the queues.

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Q: What made that storm so severe, in terms of why people were stranded for so long?

A: I’d say it’s probably similar to what Virginia experienced. When you get storms where you get an incident on the roadway and the conditions continue after the incident occurs, you get times where after the initial problem is removed — say it was a rolled over tractor-trailer — by the time you can get some of these major incidents cleaned up, the precipitation can be so great that the cars that were in the queue behind that get stuck. They can’t get out because they’ve been snowed in place. You might also have a secondary event where there’s another crash back in the queue. If we have snowplows out there, they’re also stuck in the queues.

Q: What role did the inability to communicate directly with motorists play, and why is that so important?

A: We have dynamic message signs out on the road. That gives us the ability to share information with motorists as they’re driving down the road. So if we know there’s an incident, you might see a message saying, “Incident ahead. Road closed after mile X.” When we have a scenario like this, the traveling public has already gone past our last message board, and now they’re just stuck in a queue and don’t know why. So it gives us the ability to actually get information to the motorists when there’s no other way.

Q: Why can’t you just use AM radio, Twitter or other social media?

A: Even if it’s the PennDOT Twitter page, folks need to know where to go for that information. The 511PAConnect system enabled us to get the information to the motorists directly, without them having to do anything. We can send them a message and let them know if they want additional information, here’s a link they can click to find out more moving forward.

AM radio for highway advisories is largely a dying technology. We’re moving away from that because the AM band for highway advisories is often so small that you can’t pick up the signal clearly enough for a long enough time. There’s a very short range. There are a lot of vehicles now that don’t necessarily have AM radio. Electric vehicles by and large are moving away from AM radio, so that’s not a great technology. Those stations are often very staticky, and it’s just not a great broadcast.

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Q: What kind of information do you need to communicate to stranded motorists? What do you need to know from them?

A: We make sure that our messaging is clear, that if they have some type of emergency, they need to reach out to 911. I like to let folks stuck in the queue know what we know when we know it. It might not always be that we can tell them ‘This will be cleared up by 4 this afternoon,’ but we can give them what we know at the time. It doesn’t necessarily resolve the situation for them because they still may be stuck for many hours, but it at least eliminates the wondering about what is going on.

We’ll pull information together to understand what types of vehicles are in the queue, how many are stuck, and where they are so we can paint a picture of what the event looks like. We can get a map with pinpoints of vehicles in the queue that have responded to us. If there is one mile of a trapped queue versus 10 miles of a trapped queue, that might be a different response.

Q: Why aren’t highway cameras enough to tell you what’s going on?

A: They are if you can see everything. But we don’t have enough cameras that you can see every mile of the roadway. Cameras work if the incident in the queue happened in sight of a camera. But the cameras are generally focused around urban areas with a lot of congestion. When you have stretches of highway across the state, it’s just too expensive to try to put a camera every mile or so.

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Q: Why is it important for you to know what kind of vehicle people are in?

A: Depending on the situation, someone could text us that they’re running out of gas. That’s not really a 911 situation, but if we know someone is in a 2017 red Ford Fiesta, they can be tracked down that way. It’s also good to know how many tractor-trailers are there. The better situational awareness folks in the field have, the better response they can provide.

Q: How much does the system cost?

A: It costs $90,000 for an initial setup and, for us, the annual fee is $70,000. [The company says the cost depends on the size of the state, and other states might be charged differently, since Pennsylvania helped developed the system.]

Q: Why is this a good investment if you don’t have to use it that often?

A: It’s a good investment when the time comes and we need to reach people. We put a lot of stake in traveler information: doing what we can to keep motorists informed and making sure we provide the best responses to incidents on the roadway.

Q: Does it actually help you clear major incidents more quickly, or mostly make people feel less alone while they’re stuck?

A: I think it’s more the latter. It’s more about the safety of the motorists in the queue. Some of the information may be used for the information response, but I think it’s more about keeping the folks in the trapped queue connected, sharing with them what we know and identifying any potential situations that might be occurring in the queue itself.

For example, if we saw someone saying, “I’m about to run out of gas,” I’d start sharing it with the area command staff and others to say, “Hey, we’re about to have another major issue because it’s zero degrees and someone is about to run out of gas. Is there any way to get some fuel to them?” It gives us the opportunity to have conversations, so now it’s a little bit more than just trying to clear the incident. It’s about trying to make sure that we understand what’s happening to the folks that are in that queue, as well.