by John Davis
Traffic tie-ups, construction zones, lane closures -- it's enough to make any driver's blood boil. But here at the Colorado Traffic Management Center, a concerted effort is underway to keep drivers informed of real-time traffic conditions using the latest technology
ROD MEAD: We always say an informed traveler is a happy traveler.
With over 9,000 highway miles to monitor, including major interstates, Rod Mead and his staff are responsible for any and everything that will affect travel throughout Colorado.
ROD MEAD: It could be an accident, it could be adverse weather, it could be debris in the roadway.
Access to over 400 cameras statewide helps public information officer Mark Aultman report on road conditions and closures. He types in messages that will appear on electronic sign boards above the roadways.
MARK AULTMAN: We're always increasing the method of delivery of the information that we have, and we're always trying to find better ways to provide more accurate information.
Motorists can also get on-the-hour updates by calling 5-1-1 from any phone in Colorado. An increasing number of other states also offer this free service.
ROD MEAD: We took about 3.1 million phone calls last year into that system. A lot of folks using the information.
Most recently, the Colorado Department of Transportation started sending wireless alerts to drivers via text message or e-mail. Motorists sign up on the state's cotrip.org website.
ROD MEAD: It really is one-stop shopping. You can get just about everything.
Mead says it's chock-full of information: travel alerts, seasonal road closures, construction detours. There's even a detailed map of camera locations that show either static or streaming video.
ROD MEAD: Right now, we've got 48 cameras available for streaming, and we've got, oh, close to 300 and…maybe a little bit more as far as still cameras.
Cotrip has been around for more than a decade. Mead says last year 67 million viewers used the site, generating over one billion hits.
ROD MEAD: We actually send out terabytes of information. It's actually a huge amount of data that we send out to the traveling public.
Another way CDOT is getting the latest information out to travelers is with the use of Cotrip kiosks. Monitors such as this one are set up at truck stops and visitors centers around the state listing the latest road conditions and travel alerts. Gathering all this information requires a dedicated back-end system and a strong, multi-jurisdictional fiber optic network.
JOHN NELSON: This is where all the data from around the state comes in and it's processed. And what you've seen previously is how we get it back out to the public.
John Nelson shows me the tiny fiber optic cables that are encased in a plastic tube and buried 4 feet underground
JOHN NELSON: This fiber is about the size of your hair. It's made out of glass, and it brings all the data in using a laser optic system to bring it back.
The information is sent to these distribution panels to be processed, and that's how CDOT staffers help spread the word to the motoring public.
MARK AULTMAN: I like feeling as though I'm actually providing some information that's going to help people on the road, and I feel like it really does.
Colorado is one of the first states in the country to offer estimated travel times on rural highways. It helps drivers better plan their weekend recreational trips.
ROD MEAD: Colorado is very wide-open traffic wise. We've got a long commute to get into our mountains to get up to the ski areas.
CDOT combines a number of technologies to determine travel times, everything from wire loops in the roadway to side fired radar. They also have readers set up along the road that can detect toll transponders in vehicles as they pass by.
ROD MEAD: We know the distance between those transponders and the speed at which they are traveling, we know the time it's taking to get from point a to point b.
It's this type of forward thinking that has helped CDOT stay on the cutting edge of technology, providing the latest traffic information to centennial state drivers for now and years to come.
ROD MEAD: I probably have seen more changes technologically in the last year than I have in the last five years combined.