Just after the second anniversary of the Interstate 75 crashes that claimed 11 lives, the Florida Department of Transportation is gearing up to start a road-improvement project to better warn drivers of traffic congestion, heavy fog and smoke.
The project will install five dynamic message signs, 21 vehicle detectors and 12 visibility sensors as well as thermal and standard cameras in the two focus areas.
Paynes Prairie is “geographically challenged and predisposed to fog,” said Laurie Windham, a spokeswoman for the project. If there’s any fire, prescribed or not, the fog can mix with the smoke and travel to the adjacent highway.
“All these devices are interconnected and work together to alert motorists,” Windham said.
State Rep. Keith Perry, who has been integral in moving the project forward, said it’s difficult to get real-time information to the highway.
“Unless you happen to have a police officer or highway patrol (officer) in the area, they have no way to know the situation has changed,” he said.
The large, permanent boards will be easier to update and will solve problems that portable message boards tend to cause.
“They’re not accurate,” he said. “They become irrelevant. People tend to ignore them.”
Normally, the most dangerous times to drive are in the early morning and evening hours when the temperature is changing. The new technology should help students traveling to school and going home at night, he said.
The funding for the $2.1 million project is coming from the Department of Transportation gas tax, “that you and I pay every time we fill up our car,” Perry said.
Gainesville Mayor Ed Braddy said he looks forward to the improvements, which will help residents travel safely and more efficiently.
“I can only imagine how frightening it is to have a bunch of people out there driving and have some slow down, some that wisely pull over or take an exit and others who don’t seem to think it’s much of a problem,” he said. “When you have that dynamic, it creates a risky, hazardous condition.”
UF students look forward to the changes as well.
Francesco Lane, an 18-year-old UF psychology freshman, drove through Paynes Prairie last weekend during heavy fog. He said the low visibility concerned him, especially when he turned on his high beams.
“You can see more of the fog because of the brights,” he said. “It’s almost like whiteout.”
Lane said he believes more notifications of traffic congestion and weather conditions will help traffic problems.
“When there’s a bunch of stopped cars, just getting there sooner and notifying people that they need to slow down earlier” could increase safety, he said.
[Staff writers Kelcee Griffis and Kathryn Varn contributed to this report. A version of this story ran on page 1 on 1/23/2014 under the headline "Project to improve Paynes Prairie road conditions"]