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Better forecasts, easier access make Alaska driving a lot safer

Jenny NeymanRedoubt Reporter

Apologies to Steppenwolf, but rarely do prudent Alaskans get their motors runnin’ and head out on the highway in search of adventure to the point of not caring whatever comes their way.

They might be born and live in wild country, but that does not mean they’re wild about racing off into that country unaware and unprepared. Most would rather know what might be coming their way before they even pull out of their driveway.

These days that information is easier than ever to come by. Through advances in technology and participation in social media, those heading out on the state’s highways have a wealth of information available to them. Drivers in state need only dial 511 or visit the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities’ traveler information site to check driving conditions and weather watches, be forewarned of road closures, see areas of current and planned maintenance work, and get other pertinent information.

And if navigating a browser to the 511 site is too cumbersome, ADOT uses social media to connect with subscribers even more directly, posting road condition, closure and maintenance information to its followers on Facebook and Twitter. It’s about at the point where it’s harder to not be informed before hitting the road than to have an idea of what’s in store for the drive.

And while that kind of access to information might seem second nature to travelers today, it’s still a relatively recent development -- about 10 years for the website and since August 2011 for the social media presence. But use of these tools has exploded since their inception. The 511 page is the most-visited site of all of ADOT’s web presence, its Alaska 511 Traveler Information Facebook page has more than 1,870 followers, the general ADOT Facebook page has 3,115, and @Alaska511 has 862 followers on Twitter (as of publication time). It’s a bit of a shift in the way ADOT operates to incorporate a habit of providing information through social media, but it’s a trend set to continue.

“It’s a little bit of an extra workload. The department’s trying to embrace it as another tool in the toolbox. It’s not the only thing we’re doing to try to reach the public, but we know that there are a lot of people who prefer to get their news or engage with different government agencies through social media, so we understand that’s an important forum and we’ve embraced it,” said Jeremy Woodrow, ADOT spokesperson.

It’s not that an interest in informing travelers is new, he said, but as technology advances, so do the ways of communicating.

Today’s drivers might take it for granted that they can find out if there will be flaggers between points A and B, if there’s ice on the road in the mountain pass ahead or if high winds are expected to develop by the afternoon portion of their drive. But for those who traversed the state before these communications advances took hold, this standard continues to feel like a luxury.

“I still appreciate the fact that we can do these things. In fact, I’m almost in awe every day the things we can find on the Internet, the information available and the way we can get information. I don’t take it for granted because of having known the conditions in previous times, and knowing what things were like and what we had to go through to get information. The information that is so readily available now, I greatly appreciate it,” said Al Hershberger of Soldotna.

With his Kenai Peninsula experience dating back to the late 1940s, Hershberger remembers when just having a road connection to Anchorage was the big new thing, long before people were excited about having new ways to find out driving conditions along that road.

“Originally, I’m not aware of any way to find that out, way back when the highway to Anchorage first opened in ’51. You would know who the last person was who went up the road and you’d go ask him,” said Hershberger, who in those days worked for the Alaska Road Commission, which built the peninsula’s highways.

Radio was about the only way to communicate long distances at that time -- at least, the only way faster than mail service or in-person transportation.

“We’d turn on the radio and listen to what the weather forecast was and so forth. As a way of getting news around in those days we had what is known as Mukluk Telegraph, and that was on KENI every evening. If you wanted to send a message to somebody in the Bush, or if you went to Anchorage and you wanted to let everybody know you got there, you called the radio station and told them to put it on Mukluk that you made it to Anchorage and generally that the road was good or the road was bad or whatever,” he said.

Before Hershberger got a telephone, he’d use a trailing antenna he had set up on his plane parked in his backyard.

“I would either have somebody hold it or hang it on a tree and get on the radio and call the station in Kenai. Every 15 minutes after the hour and 15 ’til the hour they broadcast the weather for Kenai, Anchorage, Homer, Iliamna, and, I believe, Talkeetna. There were stations at all those places and they had communications between each other, so you could call Kenai on the radio, or you could drive in there and talk to them, and find out where the weather was in wherever you were going.”

As for being informed of impending natural disasters -- forget about it. The Good Friday Earthquake in 1964, of course, came as an unforeseen shock, and little warning was available of the resultant deadly tsunami. Same thing with volcanic eruptions.

“I remember when Mount Spurr erupted in 1953. I happened to be flying on the other side of it so I didn’t see any of it, but Anchorage got dark at noon and it was really unexpected. You couldn’t find out what the volcanoes were doing until you saw the ash,” Hershberger said.

Not so now. Along with the usual alerts through media and governmental emergency management entities, anyone interested can get warnings and other information from the Alaska Volcano Observatory on Facebook and Twitter (@alaska_avo), and the National Weather Service’s Tsunami Alerts on Twitter (@NWS_NTWC).

But a few decades ago, not only were modes of communication limited, so was the information available through those modes. Weather forecasts, for instance, were listened to with a whole shaker of grains of salt.

“Forty, 50 years ago when you turned on the radio and got the forecasts, you would just kind of shrug your shoulders and say, ‘Well, it might be, it might not be.’ The only thing we used to count on was the current weather, so if they told you that the wind was blowing from the north at 40 miles an hour in Kenai, that’s what it was doing now. But if they told you what it was going to do at midnight you just kind of ignored it. It may or may not,” he said.

Better networks of information developed. When the highway to Anchorage first opened, central peninsula residents might drop by the Soldotna ARC office to ask if anyone had been on the road and knew if it was passable. Eventually, ARC equipped its work camps with radios, expanding the availability of timely condition reports.

“You could go to the Soldotna office of the Road Commission, and later the (Bureau of Public Roads), and they could tell you what the conditions were at Silvertip (just past the Hope Highway intersection if heading to Anchorage), because they checked in every day on the radio. It just kind of slowly evolved to where there was more and more information,” Hershberger said.

ADOT did and still does issue press releases to media outlets to inform the public of major road-related announcements. But for people wanting to find out conditions for themselves, short of emergency announcements of avalanches, washouts and the like, all they had was the original method of asking recent travelers or, by the 1990s, calling an ADOT hotline.

“What used to be the cutting-edge technology was the Alaska Department of Transportation had a phone number that you could call and listen to the road weather conditions for your area. We actually had the different maintenance camps fax an individual person in the department all the weather updates for the day, or for the weekend if it was a Friday. That person would gather all the information, read out the faxes that they received from the different areas of the state over the phone and record it. You would call that recording and listen to it and however long on that recording (your highway of interest) would eventually fall, you would be able to listen to what the update for that was,” Woodrow said.

Then came the Internet and establishment of the 511 website. Travelers could get far more up-to-date information on a much wider range of highways across the state just as fast as their Internet connection could take them.

Particularly popular are the road weather cameras positioned on major highways throughout the state. Visitors to the 511 website can click on a camera location and see for themselves what conditions look like, as well as a current reading of temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, and other information.

The department tries to update road condition reports at least three times a day, but that’s not always feasible during weekends and major weather events, Woodrow said. So the cameras are quite valuable in providing information in between updates.

“What’s great about the road weather cameras is that’s real-time information. It gives you the weather, and some of the cameras even give you what the freezing point is, humidity, as well as what might be the condition of the roadway. It gives you wind speed as well as snow depth. That’s all real helpful information to help you plan your travel,” Woodrow said.

He lives in Juneau and uses the road weather cameras there.

“We don’t have a lot of roads, but I use them because sometimes conditions change just in a distance of 15, 20 miles, depending on how the weather is. It’s nice to see if the road’s been plowed or how much it’s snowing from one side of town to the other,” he said.

Social media allows an even greater opportunity for communication because it allows people an easy way to not just receive information, but to respond, offer information and ask questions.

“On our Facebook pages, the department always tries to respond to folks’ inquires. Sometimes there are so many different questions that we can’t respond to all of them, so we try to do a general response to the majority of them,” Woodrow said. “We are listening.”

ADOT encourages travelers to correspond, especially with reports about maintenance issues.

“We definitely appreciate when folks call in and let us know of a situation going on in their area, whether it’s winter or summer maintenance -- like a pothole or a guardrail got run into. Either way works, social media or call. We try to monitor it as much as possible, even after hours, too,” Woodrow said.

It’s extra work in one sense but a balance shift another, since older methods have been abandoned (nobody gathers faxes to read into a phone recording, for instance).

“The technology has made us more productive on one end,” Woodrow said.

It all adds up to travelers having the ability to be more prepared. These days when Hershberger plans a trip up the road, he checks the 511 site first and weather reports first -- and fully believes the reports he sees.

“Today they’re much more accurate and they have more resources to be able to get information and to know how to use it,” he said. “And, of course, the availability of getting the information on current conditions is better, too.”

This article originally appeared in the Redoubt Reporter and is republished here with permission.