Automatic Vehicle Locator systems serve as valuable tools for county highway crews

Global positioning technology is finding its way into snowplows across Wisconsin, providing county and state transportation officials a valuable new weapon in battling winter storms.

Utilizing federal funds administered through the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT), about two-thirds of Wisconsin’s county highway departments are installing Automatic Vehicle Locators (AVL) in snowplows. The AVL systems use global positioning technology that generates information about where plows are located, what routes have been covered, and when and how much de-icing materials should be applied to roadways.

“County highway departments and snowplow operators throughout Wisconsin do an outstanding job keeping our roads safe and open for business throughout the winter season,” said David Vieth, Director of WisDOT’s Bureau of Highway Maintenance. “Wisconsin now has AVL technology in more snowplows than any other state, providing us a valuable new tool in dealing with winter weather.”

WisDOT oversees a network of about 60 remote weather information stations located along state highways and bridges that track wind speed and direction, air and pavement temperatures, even precipitation depths and salt concentrations. That comprehensive weather information, combined with information available through the AVL technology, supplies county highway superintendents and snowplow operators with up-to-the-minute data on current and predicted storm conditions.

“This technology holds the potential to reduce both labor and material costs by helping determine the type and amount of de-icing materials to apply on roads, and when such treatments should start and stop,” Vieth said.

A study of the initial AVL pilot effort by the UW-Madison Traffic Operations and Safety (TOPS) lab indicates the technology could reduce overall salt use by between six and nine percent. To help battle snow and ice along Wisconsin’s 12,000-mile state highway system this winter season, WisDOT purchased about 525 tons of salt at a cost of about $35 million.

While counties and plow operators do all they can to keep Wisconsin roadways open throughout the winter, motorists should keep in mind the following safety tips when it comes to winter driving:

  • If possible, stay off roads until they’re plowed.
  • Before your trip, call 511 or go to to check road conditions.
  • If venturing out, slow down, leave plenty of room between vehicles, and anticipate stops and turns.
  • Give snowplows plenty of room to work. They’re big and hard to see around.
  • State law requires drivers to stay at least 200 feet behind a working snowplow. While you can legally pass a snowplow, be extremely careful, as plows can generate a cloud of snow that can cause a whiteout and disorient you.
  • Always remember to wear your seatbelt, drive sober, and travel at speeds appropriate for the conditions.

During the last winter season in Wisconsin, vehicle crashes along snow or ice-covered roads resulted in 44 traffic fatalities and some 5,890 people injured. Driving too fast for conditions is a common factor in many winter crashes and fatalities.