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Shutting down highways due to bad visibility: the process

The wind speeds Thursday weren’t as high as they were Wednesday. They were so high I-15 closed from the Broadway exit in Idaho Falls to an exit near Roberts due to a dust storm.

“If we have enough people on hand we can close it down in as little as 20 minutes,” said David Fullmer, the maintenance foreman in Rigby for the Idaho Transportation Department.

“If you’ve never been in a dust storm, it’s a very eerie feeling a lot like being in foggy conditions. Very dangerous and there are times we have to use the rumble strips on the side of the road to be able to find where the edge of the road is because it’s absolutely zero visibility, very dangerous,” said Lt. Chris Weadick with the Idaho State Police.

Strong gusty winds, blowing dust, and very poor visibility does not make for the safest travel plans. So Idaho State Police and the Idaho Transportation Department work hand -in-hand in closing our highways.

“The ITD has installed a wind speed notification up in the Osgood area. And it’s activated through our cell phones and it’s been a great tool for us to be able to monitor the wind speeds, knowing that the faster the wind is, the likelihood a dust storm is going to occur,” said Weadick.

“What we usually do — and ISP is a big help on that as well because oftentime they see it before we do — when we get notifications and we can pull up the site with the camera and look at the pictures, then we can go up and get a closer look at it and make a decision then if it needs to be closed,” said Fullmer.

The ITD said severe dust storms make it necessary to close sections of I-15 up to an average of five times a year.

“We have the low-visibility signs that are out there and we do have some variable speed signs that periodically we’ll lower the speed. But if you see it blowing and the visibility looks like it’s deteriorating, just slow down. If you end up in a crash inside that dust storm, try to move off the road onto the shoulder to eliminate being hit again,” said Fullmer.

Depending on the year, high trees and crops can help keep the dust from spilling over to the roads.

“These high windstorms during the fall and the spring, a lot of the times there aren’t any crops out there to hold the dirt in place,” said Weadick.

“We’ve been talking for a while about different kinds of options. One option is maybe partnering with the property owners to get some dust-friendly crops going in there,” said Fullmer.

Another more permanent solution is the dust storm detour route, the same routes used when an air show comes to town.

“Our goal is traffic safety first and second is to make sure that commerce continues to move and that people are able to get from point A to point B,” said Weadick.

ISP and the ITD ask when this does happen for you to slow down, move over, and give them some elbow room to close the highway quickly and safely.

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