Planning ahead for the unexpected to keep travelers safer

DetourWith research showing that at least 94 percent of traffic crashes are caused by decisions made by the driver, we can expect traffic crashes to continue to be a part of the travel experience as long as there are humans controlling the vehicles.  

Crashes can cause traffic to be slowed, stopped, or detoured while the victims are treated, the incident is investigated, and the crash site is cleaned up. This can cost travelers frustration, time, and money. At the Iowa Department of Transportation, our mission is getting you there safely, efficiently, and conveniently. That means doing all we can to minimize the impacts of a crash on traffic.

Over the last year the Office of Traffic Operations has been working with law enforcement, local public works offices, county engineers, and regional Iowa DOT employees to develop emergency traffic incident management (TIM) plans for the state’s interstate system to help us better fulfill our mission and get you moving again when a crash occurs.

Jared Smith, Iowa DOT’s TIM coordinator, said, “Once we are in a crash situation, the incident commander on scene, typically law enforcement, would make the call to implement the detour route.”

When the incident commander on scene makes the decision to close the road and detour traffic, the commander will notify the Iowa DOT’s Traffic Management Center of the detour route option. The TMC then enacts the plan, lighting up the dynamic message signs, making the notifications to other stakeholders, and monitoring cameras along the route advising traffic of the closure ahead. The TMC also confirms the detour route with the Iowa DOT’s area maintenance supervisor.

TMC 3 operators
Since these plans have been developed in advance, there is a possibility that a change will be needed due to construction or other factors on the detour route. Getting the most up-to-date information to all the stakeholders was initially a challenge.

John Wilson, with the Iowa DOT’s Office of Traffic Operations, said, “The first emergency TIM plan we did was in Council Bluffs. We distributed thumb drives to everyone with the initial plan, but that didn’t allow for updates. As we developed better practices, we’re now using cloud-based document sharing that we can update from our office. Then all the stakeholders can easily access the updates.”

When it comes to traffic incident management plans, the Office of Traffic Operations is currently focused in two areas:

  • Coordinating TIM plans along all interstates in the state.
  • Coordinating TIM plans every year for major construction projects across the state.

“For each of these areas we look for two traffic routing options,” said Smith. “For the detours, we want routes that keep traffic moving. We work to minimize the number of stop signs and traffic signals travelers would need to go through and keep traffic out of smaller cities and towns,” said Smith. “Because we could be dealing with significant truck traffic, especially when we’re routing off of I-80, allowing enough space for turns is vital, as well as checking all bridge clearance issues and pavement integrity. All of these details work to keep travelers moving through the area as quickly and safely as possible.”

Wilson added, “We try and avoid the potential for the increased traffic to cause additional damage to a county or local road whenever possible. Working with the county engineers and Iowa DOT central office and district folks, we can map out where the pavements are deep enough to handle interstate traffic and avoid areas where the pavement is thinner and the additional traffic might cause damage.”

The emergency TIM plans include current contact information for all stakeholders. “We want everyone to be aware of the plans and how they might impact a local area,” said Wilson. “Keeping up the contact information so those people can be in the loop and provide feedback on what works and what could be a potential issue with any aspect of the plan is essential to success.”

Emergency detour signThe online documentation keeps stakeholders in the loop, but what about travelers? Smith says signing of the emergency detours is underway. “As with any major traffic incident, the information is be available on and we have signs in place for most of the major construction projects on the interstate system to help guide people in the event the road needed to be closed due to an incident. If you are on a road and see an ‘emergency detour’ sign, that means that road has been designated as a detour route for that segment.”

Once all the emergency TIM plans are in place for the interstate system, Wilson says his office will begin working with stakeholders near Iowa’s border bridges that have not already been covered by an interstate plan.

“Proper planning prevents poor performance,” said Smith, adapting an often-quoted British army saying. While the quote might be a bit cliché, the efforts of the Iowa DOT’s Office Traffic Operations will result in a more organized, unified, and safer response in an emergency and ultimately help improve our mission of getting travelers there safely, efficiently, and conveniently.  


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