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May 12, 2010

Inclement Weather vs. The State

New technologies to predict severe weather could have states looking in their rear-view mirror.  

DENVER -- Snow, sleet, hail and rain. Weather can significantly affect the traveling public and the transportation agencies that operate and maintain the state roadways.

In the last five years, more states have begun using Road Weather Information Systems (RWISs) to provide accurate, detailed and timely information about weather-related road conditions. By having up-to-date weather conditions for roadways, the Department of Transportation (DOT) in each state can make decisions that affect public safety, mobility and productivity, such as when to send out snowplows, when to close roads and when to warn motorists of dangerous conditions.

"As we've seen with the previous winter snowstorms that blanketed most of the country, these Road Weather Information Systems are a vital resource for states and their transportation agencies," said Jaime Rall, NCSL transportation analyst. "States are employing a range of strategies to use RWIS to ensure public safety during inclement weather, and to address states' liability risks when doing so.”

Forty-four states and the District of Columbia currently own and use Road Weather Information Systems. Utah, for example, reported that using RWIS-supported forecasts saved $2.2 million a year in labor and material costs for snow- and ice-control activities. Winter road maintenance alone accounts for about 20 percent of state DOT maintenance budgets.

The National Conference of State Legislatures, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration has issued a report, Weather or Not?  This report details liability concerns and strategies related to the use of RWIS in the states.

Most states own, operate and distribute information from RWIS systems, and these new technologies have raised some liability concerns for states that must be addressed with care. The report details concerns about possible liabilities related to pushing out RWIS information directly to the public, especially online; providing RWIS information to the public indirectly or through a third party; and liabilities for not using RWIS technologies when they are expected or indicated.

This report also gives a menu of strategic options for addressing those concerns, with real-life examples from the states. To mitigate these liabilities, states use limitations on data sharing, online disclaimers regarding RWIS data, public outreach and education, and allocation of funds by state legislatures.

This report is available free online to NCSL members, the media and the public. If you have further questions, please direct them to NCSL's press room.

NCSL is a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the states, commonwealths and territories. It provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues and is an effective and respected advocate for the interests of the states in the American federal system.