Beware: Winter driving ahead

AMES, Iowa -- All the dots crossing two Iowa maps represent crash patterns.

Iowa State University researchers prepared the maps as part of a project that could help the Iowa Department of Transportation make Iowa's state and federal highways safer for winter driving.

On one map, the dots represent the frequency of crashes during snowy and icy weather. The patterns indicate the state's cities have the highest frequency of winter-weather crashes. On the other map, the patterns represent the severity of crashes during winter weather. The patterns indicate winter-weather crashes tend to increase in severity along rural stretches of the state's interstates.

That tells researchers that city drivers have more winter-weather crashes but the accidents are less severe, said Tom Maze, an Iowa State professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering and director of the Midwest Transportation Consortium at Iowa State's Center for Transportation Research and Education. He said the maps also tell researchers that drivers in rural areas have fewer winter-weather crashes but they're more severe.

Maze and Zach Hans, a research engineer for the Center for Transportation Research and Education, are in the early stages of a project to identify winter crash trends over the past 10 years on Iowa's state and federal highways. They want to find out where accidents are occurring and who's getting into the accidents.

The Iowa Department of Transportation is supporting the project with a $24,000 contract.

Hans said the research could lead to measures that improve the winter-weather safety of Iowa's highways.

The measures could be as simple as putting snow fences along certain stretches of highway to reduce blowing and drifting snow. Or plowing assignments at the state's 110 maintenance garages could be adjusted to minimize changes in road conditions as drivers travel a highway.

Maze said the study's results could lead to many other safety measures. They could identify a need for driver education programs. Or employers could be encouraged to be more flexible during winter storms. Or engineers could design roads that resist icing because they're banked toward the sun. Or stretches of highway where accidents are common could be plowed first.

And so Maze thinks the research has the potential to make a difference when Iowa drivers face snow and ice.

"We can manage the risk associated with weather," he said, "as opposed to leaving it to happenstance."