Roadway operations for winter roadway safety and mobility

Richard L. Hanneman
Salt Institute
Alexandria, Virginia

As we prepare for the Congressional battles to reauthorize the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), we take comfort that our arguments for investments in more and better roadways are more than fanciful, ideological rhetoric. Though anti-growth critics pretend to ignore the fact, we are proud that highway advocates have tried to inoculate themselves against charges of "pork barrel" special interest pleading and "trying to pave over America." Today's highway advocates have accepted the challenge of justifying the massive continuing investment in roadway infrastructure in terms of its performance of an essential role in delivering cost-effective service in promoting safer surface transportation, reducing costly and polluting congestion, and enhancing consumer choice and quality of life. How well our highway infrastructure performs is the right question. And we have the right answers to those who would fundamentally alter the delivery system of the best transportation network in the world.

The Salt Institute has been engaged in building the case for investments to ensure improving roadway performance in the future. Highway performance means year-round delivery of the service levels that justified us building the highways in the first place. Highway deicing salt has proven itself a vital component in promoting safe driving conditions and enabling road authorities to maintain high service levels of winter roadway mobility. As Congress grapples with the need to renew our aging highway infrastructure, improve its safety and reliability, and expand its capacity to meet mushrooming user demands, it may be instructive to consider the contributions of effective winter maintenance to this grand design.

Renewing our highways requires us to evaluate the fundamental questions of what kind of highways should we build, how long we should expect them to last, and how we incorporate the benefits of new Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) technology. One of the underlying themes of the long series of National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) reports on winter maintenance has been to investigate and quantify the impacts of the use of chloride deicers on our roads and bridges. These investigations have allowed us to "salt proof" many structures so that the infrastructure we build today will last far longer than that constructed in earlier generations. Beyond stronger pavements and bridge design, however, our new roadways will incorporate in-pavement sensors and other road-weather information systems, to support winter maintenance decision-making. Our future highways will be even better in dealing with non-recurring incidents such as construction work zones, disabled vehicles and crashes, and snow and ice events.

Safety has always been the prime motivation for improving the level of winter maintenance service. The motoring public identifies crash prevention as the primary reason for performing winter maintenance, and winter maintenance and operations are recognized as an effective countermeasure by such groups as the Roadway Safety Foundation and all Snowbelt highway agencies. Several studies have documented what intuition suggests: plowing and salting roads sharply and cost-effectively reduces crash rates, injuries and deaths. In the first four hours after salt is applied, 88 percent of the injury accidents that would otherwise occur are prevented. Salting and plowing pay for themselves in a half-hour and return at least $6.50 for every dollar invested. We expect studies will soon confirm that the newer strategy of anti-icing will move winter highway safety to a new, higher level and improve our economic productivity in winter. Safety professionals have realized that roadway safety involves more than identifying unsafe roadway locations; it also must deal with changing traffic conditions such as weather and crash events.

Research shows that customers value reliable transportation service even more than reduced travel times. Winter maintenance not only makes highways safer, but also provides greater reliability to highway users. Unrestricted traffic flow is certainly important, but, as in the case of just-in-time-deliveries, the real problem for users is unexpected delay. Highway operations—dealing with the crashes, disabled vehicles, construction work zones, hazardous materials spills, special events, and snow and ice events—plays a vital role in assuring highway users reliable highway access.

The demand for highway service is! Individuals and businesses use our highways to conduct their business, whether that business is dropping off dry-cleaning or picking up groceries or the soccer team. Our growing population and economy have imposed capacity requirements that will, certainly, require selected additions to lane miles, but a key element in cost-effective highways comes by squeezing the maximum throughput from existing roadways. Effective winter maintenance can stretch the capacity of existing roads. We need a streamlined approvals process that allows all legitimate parties to express their views but that does not interminably delay realization of the safety and mobility benefits for which the improvement is designed.

The salt industry is committed to customer service—service not only in providing a quality product in a timely fashion to our customers (roadway maintenance agencies), but service to the ultimate consumer: the roadway user who values safe and reliable use of our highway system. Working together, all of us APWA members, both salt producers and salt users, can use this tool responsibly to provide safer and more reliable winter roadway travel and the benefits that brings.

To reach Richard L. Hanneman, call (703) 549-4648 or send e-mail to