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University of Iowa News Release


Dec. 22, 2010

UI winter highway maintenance expert to discuss trends at conference Feb. 1-3

When the subject is the weather -- the saying goes -- everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.

And in the case of winter highway travel, the subject is quite serious because some 2,200 annual highway fatalities can be partly attributed to wintery conditions, according to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.

But a University of Iowa expert has been helping people around the world deal with icy winter highways for decades. Wilfrid Nixon, professor of civil and environmental engineering and an internationally known authority on winter highway maintenance, will speak Feb. 1-3 at the inaugural session of the conference Winter Exhibition Nordicway in Ostersund, Sweden.

His primary message on trends for his international audience will be that despite growing interest in sustainable practices, winter highway maintenance activities can have an adverse impact on the environment, especially if done without due regard for watersheds, plants and animals.

"The challenge is that sustainability is not often presented in terms that are easily measurable. My presentation will discuss various methods under consideration in the United States for determining by measurements how sustainable an agency's winter maintenance activities are, and how the sustainable nature of those activities can be improved," Nixon said.

One example of a good sustainable practice involves the City of West Des Moines extending its supply of road salt by mixing it with beet juice. An example of how experts may be able to measure the success of reducing the impact of road salt on the environment would be to take periodic water sample from steams adjacent to the roadways and test them for salinity.

Another trend is that it is becoming more difficult to attract and retain good workers to the field of winter maintenance. "Related to this is a concern about how many of the current winter maintenance workers are coming close to retirement age, and how will we ensure that their wisdom -- which is considerable -- is retained as the work force undergoes a significant transition," he said.

A third trend, according to Nixon, is how increased sophistication of winter maintenance equipment is serving to increase, sometimes significantly, the "cognitive burden" on the snowplow operator. "Put simply, there are too many buttons to push, numbers to read, and levers and joysticks to manipulate to allow snow plow operators to keep two hands on the wheel and two eyes on the road while they are plowing in the middle of a snow storm," he said. Somehow, for the safety of all concerned, the operation of the equipment will need to be simplified.

Finally, Nixon has a message for all motorists who find themselves confronted by difficult driving conditions this winter.

If possible, put your trip off, he said. But if you must drive, allow more time and remember the slogan that some states are already using: "Ice and snow, take it slow." Oh, and don't use cruise control, he added.

Nixon has taught an international online course on winter highway maintenance and has presented talks on the subject in Europe, Asia and the United States. He is a also a faculty research engineer in the UI College of Engineering's IIHR -- Hydroscience & Engineering research center and a researcher in the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: Gary Galluzzo, 319-384-0009,