A FAST way to make highways safer

Imagine an overpass or a bridge that would automatically apply the proper chemical when the surface iced up. No more guesswork about when to send the trucks out. No more dangerously slippery surfaces.

No, this is not science fiction. It's Fixed Automated Spray Technology, or FAST. In use around the world for several years, it's a safe bet that it's only a matter of time before it arrives in Alberta.

One of the prime benefits to FAST is that it can significantly reduce crashes and save lives. Now, new research shows that over the long haul, it could save money as well.

Here's how U.S. researchers Shawn Birst and Mohammad Smadi summed it up: "The major benefits of the FAST systems relate to reductions in societal [resulting from vehicle crashes] and transportation agency costs [maintenance activities]."

FAST is a spray de-icing system that relies on real-time data from a Road Weather Information System (RWIS). Used in Europe for 20 years and parts of Canada and the United States more recently, sensors from RWIS sense ice and frost and send a signal to a FAST system to apply liquid de-icing chemicals. Because chemicals can be applied to the surface quicker, de-icing response times are significantly improved. Not only that, but less de-icing chemical, which is stored in a tank near the site, is required.

Birst and Smadi, with the Advanced Traffic Analysis Center for the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute at North Dakota State University, studied two FAST systems. One is installed at the Interstate 29 Buxton Bridge near Buxton, N.D. The other is at the Interstate 94 Red River Bridge between Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn.

"Significant crash reductions were observed at both locations after the FAST systems were installed," the two wrote in a paper published last October. "The Buxton Bridge FAST system provided a total crash reduction of 66 per cent. Crashes related to property damage were reduced by 62 per cent and injury related crashes were reduced by 75 per cent. These crash reductions contribute to the location's removal from the high crash location list, where it had consistently ranked among the top five."

They went on to say that the "Red River Bridge also experienced crash reductions after the FAST system was installed. The combined crash reductions for the Minnesota and North Dakota systems observed a total crash reduction of 50 per cent."

If you've never been to either Buxton or Fargo, the terrain-and winters for that matter-is not unlike Alberta's. It's relatively flat. Temperatures can drop quickly, and wind and snow can come suddenly.

Canada's first FAST system was installed in Ontario nearly a decade ago. But in a presentation on advanced winter maintenance systems in Alberta in March, participants at the 13th annual Tri-Part Transportation Conference in Red Deer learned FAST systems are expected to be deployed on Highway 63 in the Fort McMurray area. One system is planned for the new bridge over the Athabasca River. Another would be installed at the Thickwood Boulevard interchange.

Citing U.S. statistics, Allan Lo, an intelligent transportation systems and traffic safety specialist with Alberta Transportation, pointed out about one in four non-recurring delays on freeways are due to weather.

Getting the proper chemicals on the roadway as quickly as possible with a FAST system may well save time. But as the research from North Dakota and other places show, it's likely to be a lifesaver as well.

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