Dialing in for Traffic Tie-Ups

With the launch of its "511" telephone hotline, Utah now offers commuters and tourists the latest tool for navigating traffic and transit systems.
by | February 2002

With the launch of its "511" telephone hotline, Utah now offers commuters and tourists the latest tool for navigating traffic and transit systems.

Utah is the third state to begin 511 service statewide. The Federal Communications Commission set aside the three-digit number in July 2000 with the goal of creating a nationwide traveler information network with one easy-to-remember number.

The system in use in Utah is one of the most advanced. Callers can learn current traffic and road conditions and drill down to hear specific information about a particular city or stretch of highway. There is also information about public transit and transportation options for special events, such as this month's Olympics.

The system is completely voice-activated, so there is no need to punch numbers to work through the menus. "We encourage people to know before they go," says 511 coordinator Bryan Chamberlain, noting that the state doesn't want to promote the use of cell phones while driving. Given that the system can't control when and where people use it, the idea was, Chamberlain notes, "to make it as easy as possible to use either way."

The state is paying $600,000 for the service, which is constantly fed reports from traffic sensors, closed-circuit television cameras and even snowplow drivers. In addition, the state transportation department forged agreements with more than 40 telephone companies to transfer 511 calls into the state's call center. As states set up 511 systems nationwide, they're finding those negotiations aren't simple. Some companies are resisting agreements with governments since travel information is a service they want to provide themselves for a fee.