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Eric T. Chaffin
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Road Weather Information Systems Provide Critical Information for Safety

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The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) states that on average, there are nearly 6 million vehicle crashes every year, and 23 percent of those—over 1.3 million—are weather related. That means that the crashes took place under adverse weather conditions, such as rain, sleet, snow, fog, severe crosswinds, or blowing snow and dust or debris. These accidents kill an average of over 6,000 people a year, and injure over 480,000.

If you were one of those injured or had a loved one injured or killed in a weather-related incident, your auto accident attorney may use data from a Road Weather Information System (RWIS) to determine just what the conditions were at the time of the accident, and if the vehicle that caused the accident may have been traveling too fast for those conditions.

What is an RWIS?

A RWIS, according to municipal and highway engineering expert Richard Balgowan, is a network of Environmental Sensor Stations (ESS) that are set up next to highways and bridges and on roadways to relay road and weather conditions to a computer system. Professionals involved with road safety, such as Departments of Transportation, use data gathered from these stations to make decisions as to when to plow or de-ice the roads to make them safer for motorists.

Sensors mounted on towers near roadways and bridges, for example, measure air and dew point temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, precipitation, and snow depth, relaying this information back to the computer system every three to five minutes. These sensors may include cameras that relay images of the current weather conditions.

Sensors installed in the pavement are placed in the center of roadways and relay data concerning subsurface temperature, pavement condition, salt concentration (if the road has been salted), and freezing point of moisture present on the road.

Using data from both of these sensor types, the system can create “ice watches,” which signal users that action should be taken to prevent icy roads. They can also notify users when the roads have been salted or de-iced—with terms like “chemically wet” indicating that the road has been treated to prevent moisture from turning to ice—and can monitor traffic speeds, counts, and vehicle types.

RWIS Increases Efficiency of Road Maintenance and Provides Critical Information

The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), for example, has been using an RWIS since 1992 to gather information about road conditions. Since then, they have upgraded the system so that now, ODOT employees can have access to a color-coded picture of weather conditions across the entire state.

In addition to increasing the efficiency of safety applications, an RWIS system can also help control winter road maintenance costs, reducing labor, materials and accidents because of a more targeted ability to implement corrective actions where necessary.

These systems have also made it possible for truck drivers to have access to weather and road condition updates. Drivers can check the system to help them stay informed even as they’re on the road. Since federal truck regulations require drivers to adjust as needed when facing conditions like rain, wind, and snow, those drivers who choose to ignore the information and drive in an unsafe manner may be held liable in a personal injury lawsuit.