PHOENIX — With Arizona’s monsoon season quickly approaching, state transportation planners intend to begin installing a new long-range dust-detection system on Interstate 10.
The Arizona Department of Transportation is set to use a $54 million federal grant to widen sections of I-10 and implement a project that would reduce dust-related crashes, the Arizona Republic reported .
“We are taking an aggressive approach,” said Tom Herrmann, a spokesman for the state transportation department, told the newspaper. “We recognize we can’t necessarily control the dust, but we can predict it better.”
The project includes long-range radar set near Picacho Peak that can detect approaching dust storms from 50 miles (80 kilometers) away.
Short-range radar will be used to detect dust particles every mile between areas where most dust-related I-10 crashes occur.
Also planned are electronic billboards to display warning messages readable in both traffic directions and variable speed limit signs where speed can drop as low as 35 mph based on reduced visibility.
“The dust comes upon you very quickly and you go from seeing half a mile in front of you to barely seeing a car in front of you,” Hermann said.
More advanced warning of dust conditions can reduce the likelihood of a crash and if a crash does happen, the impact can be less severe if drivers are going 35 mph rather than 75 mph, Hermann said.
The department recorded 85 dust-related crashes along the busy freeway from Phoenix to Tucson from 2010 to 2015.
According to a 2016 report by the National Weather Service and the University of Arizona, dust is the third-leading cause of weather-related deaths behind extreme temperatures and flash floods.
Dust storms are common during Arizona’s mid-June to end-of-September monsoon season.
Although there are still challenges in predicting when a dust storm will form, technology can help relay safety messages quickly when it does happen.
Hermann said the agency plans to finish widening a 4-mile (6.4-kilometer) section of I-10 by the end of this summer before the dust-detection project begins.
Hermann said the system will be the first of its kind in Arizona.
More than a decade ago, a system was installed along I-10 from Benson to New Mexico that used wind speed to set off flashing signs that alerted drivers to the possibility of blowing dust.
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