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Drivers, Welcome to the 21st Century!

"Computer, tell me what the road conditions and weather will be like 60, 120, and 180 miles ahead of my present location". Does this sound a little like a science fiction traveler in the distance future on a highly automated highway system? Maybe, but the ability to do just this exists today in the first rural in-vehicle information system in the United States. Both North Dakota and South Dakota travelers have enjoyed the ability to use their cellular phones as "long range sensors" since November 1, 1996. Upon telling the system where they are, they receive a road condition and weather forecast report reaching out in front of their current location along a state highway or interstate that provides highway specific information in their direction of travel. This system known as #SAFE, is the nations first rural en-route traveler information system and is provided as a part of the Advanced Transportation Weather Information System (ATWIS).

Begun as a research project in July 1995 at the University of North Dakota's Regional Weather Information Center, ATWIS set out to demonstrate how current technologies in mesoscale weather forecasting and analysis could be effectively merged with telecommunications and road condition monitoring to produce a safer and more efficient transportation system. This goal was accomplished through two key objectives: an en-route traveler information system for commercial and general travel, and information designed to improve resource planning for highway maintenance activities.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 80 percent of the road miles in the United States are located in rural or small urban areas and account for about 60 percent of all traffic fatalities. With these facts in mind, ATWIS was developed to enhance the efficiency and safety along these rural highways through America.

At issue in the Northern Great Plains are the extremes in weather that are experienced every day. With wide-open spaces and vast distances between cities and towns, weather and road information can save lives and time. From summer temperatures in the 100s to winter blizzards, driving in North Dakota and South Dakota becomes a skill necessary to a very special way of life here. For the first time in the history of North Dakota's interstate system, the complete interstate system was closed not once but twice during the first six months of operations for #SAFE.

Forecast and road condition reports provide drivers with up-to-the-minute site-specific information about the road and short term forecasted weather conditions for 27,000 plus road miles across North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota. Forecast and road conditions are updated 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Travelers access the system by dialing # 7233 (Pound sign 7233) or (#SAFE) on their cellular phones. After answering 3 or 4 questions about their location and direction of travel, the system provides the latest road/weather conditions available for approximately one hour driving time utilizing Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology. Each forecast is direction specific based on the traveler's planned destination.

The ATWIS system also assists each state's Department of Transportation by reducing maintenance cost through better planning. Each day transportation district forecasts are prepared and e-mailed directly to the 22 transportation districts for manpower and equipment planning. Area and statewide forecasts are also available over the World-Wide Web for viewing by the general public.

With approval by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for the activation of a nationwide 511 traveler information number, #SAFE Is undergoing a number of enhancements. World Wide Web access and additional information on hotels, restaurants, hospitals, rest stops, services, road restrictions, and height clearances will be added as options during 2001.

#SAFE directly addresses a number of the questions the FCC left the states to answer. Financing, continuity for the user across a regional system, operating location or locations, and cost were all considered during development. Now, completing its fifth year of operation, #SAFE? is meeting the challenges of providing a complete traveler information system within a single state or a region of states by finally bringing ITS advancements to the public.

For additional information about #SAFE or ATWIS, please contact Mark Owens at 701-777-6519. To speak to highway personnel using the maintenance portion of ATWIS, please contact Edwin Ryen at 701-328-2545.

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