Using roadside technology to help you better plan a safer trip

Smart arrow board on highwayWhether you’re planning a weekend getaway or a trip to visit family and friends, having the best information about your route will help you have a safer, quicker, and less stressful journey. While winter is coming, the Iowa Department of Transportation and our construction partners will still have many active work zones as long as the weather holds. These work zones and associated delays can sometimes put a kink in your travel plans if you’re not prepared for them.

To plan for potential delays, check for information on work zones along your chosen routes. Using this information, you may want to alter your route depending on construction or maintenance activities noted on the site. This planning tool is awesome, but it can only be as accurate as the information being input behind the scenes. Iowa DOT innovators are constantly researching, evaluating, and implementing new technologies, especially using smart roadside technology to improve the data feeds that provide information to travelers. Having the most accurate information helps you make the best decision for your trip.


How smart roadside technology can help you make better decisions

Smart arrow board in use

When you’re on the road, you have likely noticed some features to help you navigate lane closures or other impediments to your journey. These include things like lighted signs with messaging, lighted arrow boards directing traffic away from lane closures, and other technology. What may not be evident to you as a traveler is that some of these elements are “smart,” in that they are equipped to track and communicate real-time roadway data back to your vehicle or smart device through websites and apps like Iowa 511, Waze, Google Maps, and Apple Maps.

Here are the types of information that is or will soon be collected and sent to 511 or other mapping apps.

  • Indication of which lane is closed
  • Pinpointing more accurate locations for the start of work zones
  • Data on when arrow boards are switched on, indicating an active work zone

Clayton Burke, a DOT engineer, said, “Work zones are dynamic and traffic patterns can change frequently because of the different work being done. Using smart work zone technology like connected arrow boards, we can get the most accurate data possible to these feeds and ultimately to you as a traveler. That will allow you to decide to alter your route based on the work happening.”

Identifying data gaps

Behind the scenes, Iowa DOT traffic and safety engineers are working with data industry partners and Iowa State University researchers to constantly improve the data from the network of smart technologies.

Making improvements to our roads involves a lot of moving parts and pieces, especially when it comes to communicating lane closures in work zones. Willy Sorenson, an Iowa DOT traffic safety engineer, said, “What folks may not know is that contractors on construction projects are given a window of time to get work done on the road, so our 511 traveler information system can be pretty vague sometimes as to when lane closures are happening because we don’t have that real-time data of when a contractor actually has a lane closed. Using this smart technology closes that data gap.”

511 info Grinnell 511 DMS Grinnell 511 arrow board Grinnell

These three screenshots show the variety of information available on or the Iowa 511 app for projects that have message signs and arrow boards.

Neal Hawkins, associate director of the Institute for Transportation at ISU, said, “Quality data is the key. A gap in that data is knowing and being able to communicate when lanes are closed in work zones.”

Closing the data gaps

We’ve probably all seen the lighted arrow boards that direct traffic to one lane or another in a work zone. Most of these boards have a simple on/off switch that the contractor will use when they are ready to work in that area. Sorenson said, “What we’ve developed and implemented is a way to hook a communication device up to the ‘on/off’ switch so that the arrow board can ‘talk’ to our traffic management center and get that lane closure information directly and accurately to travelers through our 511 system and third-party apps like Waze.”


Skylar Knickerbocker, a research engineer at ISU and the co-director of the Real-Time Analytics in Transportation laboratory, said, “Because these ‘smart arrow boards’ are an Iowa innovation, we’ve been working with industry professionals to develop standards so they can be deployed on any road anywhere. The key element we were looking for was being able to flow the data automatically to our customers without adding extra steps for the contractor. The collaboration between the Iowa DOT, industry, and ISU has been a real strength to develop standards that can be used all over the country.”

Standards were put in place for communication built into new arrow boards, as well as kits to retrofit existing boards with the capability. Sorenson said, “The contractors are getting comfortable using the smart arrow boards. There are more than 130 smart boards in Iowa equipped with the new technology.”

Retrofitting an arrow board

In addition to the real-time data the smart arrow boards provide, the data can also be stored and analyzed to determine how well traffic moved through a specific work zone configuration. Dan Sprengeler, an Iowa DOT traffic safety engineer, said, “Using data from all the ‘intelligent’ elements of a work zone, we can determine safer and more efficient configurations to put in place in the future.”

How this all started - “Wouldn’t it be great if…”

That’s how a conversation started several years ago between engineers from the Iowa and Minnesota DOTs who were meeting about safety improvements in work zones that included work zone elements transmitting data. The conversation sounded a bit futuristic at the time, but through diligent work with vendors and Iowa State University’s Institute for Transportation, the ideas formulated back then are now coming to fruition.

Sprengeler was one of the engineers involved in that initial discussion and has been part of the development process of these smart technologies. “We talked over what we would like to happen and came up with the idea to associate location data with elements, like arrow boards, that contractors regularly use in work zones. We thought this information could be useful not only to construction crews and DOT staff but also to travelers. This was long before the technology to accomplish our ideas was available, but as technology has evolved, we found ways to use it to accomplish those ideas.”

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