The economics of winter-focused safety investments

Mark F. Pinet, P.Eng.
Manager, Intelligent Transportation Systems
Totten Sims Hubicki Associates
Ottawa, Ontario

Winter driving conditions are a fact of life in Canada. However, the provision of winter driving countermeasures along with their effectiveness, cost and impact on the environment still remain major areas of concern. Snow removal and deicing operations are essential to ensuring the safety, mobility and efficiency of winter highways. Winter weather conditions present increased safety hazards for those who are travelling. The FHWA has stated that "each year there are approximately 1.57 million weather-related crashes" and that "about 25% of the non-recurring delays on freeways are due to weather; total system delay is one billion hours per year; weather affects about one-third of the national GDP and chemical anti-icing and deicing accounts for roughly one-third of the expenditures for snow and ice control."

Pubic administrators are continually challenged during times of limited financial resources to make tough decisions on which winter projects, programs and countermeasures provide the greatest benefit and should be candidates for the limited funding. This article outlines why advanced winter maintenance approaches and technology should be evaluated in terms of overall benefit and ability to facilitate safe travel during adverse winter conditions in addition to potential improvements in maintenance efficiency, productivity and reductions in environmental impacts.

Winter Maintenance
Although significant advances in winter maintenance have been made in the last decade, both the travelling public and commercial interests continue to demand more. They desire consistent driving conditions and expect that driving conditions will be restored as quickly as possible after winter weather events.

From the maintenance service provider's perspective, most advances in winter maintenance practices have been primarily motivated by a desire to improve operational efficiency (achieve the same target level of safety at less cost) while minimizing their impact on the environment. A secondary, but no less important, motivation is the desire to improve safety through an increased level of service as experienced by the drivers (more safety at the same or less cost).

Typically, winter maintenance service providers determine route requirements within a network and select maintenance treatments which are appropriate for the entire route. From a management, efficiency and risk management perspective, individually treating selected problem locations is difficult. Where these locations have been identified, advanced technologies have helped to mitigate concerns.

These advanced technologies have been employed to detect critical conditions and allow problem locations to be individually treated or pretreated. A review of performance measurement data for these technologies has shown that significant improvements to road safety have been achieved (e.g., MTO 416/401 FAAST installation). Despite the improvements, safety is not yet one of the more commonly used performance measures for winter road maintenance.

The most commonly used performance measure is the "minimum maintenance standard" adopted by the roadway authority. In the case of many agencies, the maintenance level of service is generally defined in terms of starting conditions and frequency of treatment. This being the case, the deployment of advanced winter maintenance technology has historically been sponsored by the maintenance service providers; the primary objective being to assist them with efficiency and environmental management. The improvement of safety during adverse winter conditions should also be considered as a performance measure.

Advanced technologies, suitability designed and installed, can act as a countermeasure for adverse winter road conditions by:

  • Improving awareness of road conditions by the road maintainer, leading to improved response tactics (e.g., RWIS, artificial intelligence);

  • Improving awareness of road conditions by the driver, leading to improved travel and driving decisions (e.g., en-route and pre-trip traveller information systems); and

  • Dynamic real-time physical improvement to the road condition (e.g., FAAST—anti-icing instead of de-icing).

This suite of countermeasures extends the designer's capacity to achieve greater safety when geometric design and traffic operations countermeasures have reached their practical or economical limits.

Countermeasure Selection
The dilemma faced by maintenance service providers is that, for each problem location, they must determine to what extent winter driving conditions should improve and how they can detect and treat the condition. In Ontario, the legislated requirement is a minimum maintenance standard which establishes the starting conditions and a frequency of treatment. The standard does not specifically focus on reestablishing optimal driving conditions within a period of time appropriate with the speed of travel, traffic volume and traffic mix. Rather, minimum standards are established on a network basis and, in certain situations, even meeting those minimum standards may leave hazardous driving conditions at critical high-risk locations. Without technological assistance, monitoring and treating adverse conditions may be difficult for the road maintainer.

Having been regularly selected to design these countermeasures, Mark F. Pinet & Associates (MFPA) has developed a systematic approach for identifying these high-risk locations and selecting appropriate winter maintenance countermeasures. These countermeasures have proven to provide the appropriate levels of response, producing the desired quality of winter driving conditions.

On a number of projects, MFPA has had the opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of several of the countermeasures. This has allowed MFPA to review and quantify the economic benefit of various winter maintenance countermeasures.

The application of appropriate advanced winter maintenance technologies are cost-effective countermeasures against adverse winter weather driving conditions and contribute to improved safety.

There is very limited data available documenting the effects of specific advanced winter maintenance practices on safety. On the basis of our findings, advanced winter maintenance practices show encouraging prospects for use as adverse winter road conditions countermeasures. Aside from immediately implementing some of these countermeasures, additional efforts to record and analyze the performance and measure the resulting safety improvements are warranted.

It is hoped that the information presented in this article will allow decision makers and safety advocates to work more closely with maintenance service providers in undertaking advanced winter maintenance initiatives and countermeasures. The purpose being to improve operational efficiencies, reduce the resulting impacts on the environment and, at the same time, improve safety on our roadways.

This article has also been published in an expanded technical paper to be presented at the TAC annual conference in October 2007. The author, Mark Pinet, P.Eng., has been working in the field of advanced winter maintenance technology since 1997. Mark is Manager of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) for Totten Sims Hubicki Associates (TSH). He is also Vice President of MFPA which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of TSH specializing in the planning, development, deployment and monitoring of winter-focused ITS solutions. He can be reached at