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Talking Points -- 511 can help avert winter dangers on state roads

We always wonder what our tax money is being spent on and if those dollars are being spent wisely.

The 511 Traveler Information system would have to be considered one of those services that is worth the money, especially at this time of year.

The 511 system was launched in Minnesota this summer as part of the national traveler information system. The Federal Communications Commissioner designated the 511 phone number in 2000.

The State of Minnesota instituted its free, 24/7 system as a way to get people traveling smarter and safer. 511 callers can get information about road and weather conditions, traffic, accidents, road repairs and commercial vehicle restrictions.

Calling 511 and getting information on a particular route you want to take is relatively easy for those used to touch-tone systems. If you tap in Morris, you'll receive reports for a 40-mile radius. If you type in the name of your destination, you'll find out what's going on in and around that area.

Transportation department field crews provide information to update the system, and additional information comes in from the Minnesota State Patrol, the National Weather Service, and the Road Weather Information System.

Now, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has launched the Web version of the system, and it's accessible for those with high and low bandwidth Internet access, those who use mobile on-line devices and, in the Twin Cities metro area, MetroTwitter.

Gone are the days when you would venture out on the highways during a snowstorm hoping that your route would be passable.

Travelers became a bit more informed -- and emboldened -- with the advent of reliable mobile phone systems. But we all know that mobile phone technology is only so useful. Yes, it will give you access to aid if you end up in a ditch or stranded on a snow-filled roadway. But a mobile phone will only serve to confirm what you already know: You are stuck and it might be hours before a tow truck can get to you. And once out, you're still stuck in a strange area miles from home.

The Web site makes it possible to never find yourself in those situations.

The high-speed version uses Google Maps for routes you will be traveling, and there are real-time updates so you can know if you should stay put, or, if already on the road, where and when it's best to stop and stay put. Dial-up users can access the system, too. The map quality isn't as nice, but they're good enough to get the job done, and users can get five-minute updates on conditions. The mobile version is especially helpful if you're on the road with Internet phone access.

MnDOT wants to offer travelers greater detail on a particular stretch of road they will be using. Before, winter conditions were reported by counties only.

According to Kelly Kennedy Braunig, 511 Travel Information Coordinator, the goal is to train the public to use 511 and before they head out onto potentially dangerous roads. MnDOT would like people to eventually get so used to the system that they develop the habit of checking it in the same way they now do radio weather reports or listening to the radio. The difference is, 511 information is much more detailed and specific to the individual than anything most media are able to deliver.

There's no reason to not make 511 and a habit during the winter driving season. Or any season in which you might be driving. We pay for it. Use it. A couple of minutes of your time on the phone or at the computer is certainly a small price to avert a time-consuming detour into the ditch, or a possibly life-threatening wintertime venture into the unknown on Minnesota roads.