Snow plows get high-tech upgrade in effort to save more lives

The winter storm along the East Coast is producing impressive snow numbers, and all that snowfall means thousands of miles of roads need to be plowed, and now, a new project is giving states high-tech tools to save more lives.

Snow plows are typically dispatched according to the weather models, the forecast for where the trouble spots will be. There are some new technologies being tried out in some places that turns them into mobile weather labs, using sensors to target the iciest roads. 

Each winter, states and cities spend tens of millions of dollars to keep roads safe, but accidents related to wintry weather still claim the lives of more than 4,000 Americans a year.

In Michigan, the state's Department of Transportation, known as MDOT, maintains nearly 10,000 miles of that state's roadways. 

This winter, Michigan, along with Minnesota and Nevada, are rolling out a new weapon for tackling ice and snow-covered roads - custom-designed sensors that measure road and weather conditions attached to hundreds of plow trucks. The goal: ensure that hard-hit roads that need immediate plowing are prioritized. 

Steven Cook, project coordinator at MDOT, said, "Prior to this technology, we were somewhat in the dark. We had to kind of guess where we needed to be. We had to kind of guess what the forecast was going to lay out in front of us over the next six, 12 or 24 hours."

Sensors gauge temperature and humidity, as well as road conditions through the vehicle's diagnostics.

Cook said, "So you get a diagnostic reading, you get things like traction control, you get stability, you get ABS.  The other device is what is called a surface-monitoring device that picks up ambient air temperature, it picks up humidity, it picks up dew point, it picks up surface temperature." 

Data is combined with computer weather models and relayed back to maintenance garages. The information is then displayed in each vehicle so that supervisors and drivers have a near real-time snapshot of every mile of road the trucks have traveled. 

But it's not just safety. States and cities can also save money by reducing the amount of excess chemicals and rock salt unnecessarily spread on roads.

Last year, trucks spread more than a half-million tons of salt and 93,000 tons of sand on the Michigan's state roads alone. They hope the new trucks will be more efficient. Cook said, "These pinpoint conditions can help tell the operator where they're going to leverage their resources better. If we are using less sand and salt and chemical, we are dispensing less. If we are dispensing less on the road, obviously, it's less impact on environment."

Later this month, New York will become the fourth state to start using these kinds of technologies, Don Dahler reported on "CBS this Morning." The Department of Transportation is watching how the pilot programs to see how they work before implementing the programs in other states, probably by next winter.