The Arizona Department of Transportation has gotten "more aggressive" about monitoring dust on the state's highways and shutting them down when visibility is poor, an agency official said Tuesday.
The agency was quicker to post warnings on its electronic signs in 2012 and quicker to close highways when visibility was bad, said Timothy Tait, ADOT's assistant communication director.
Tait said ADOT has "prepositioned staff" at critical times to report blowing dust and close highways when visibility falls below its threshold.
"We've had a little bit of a shift in philosophy," he said.
Tait talked about his agency's shift at a Southern Arizona dust-storm workshop convened in Casa Grande Tuesday by ADOT and the Phoenix and Tucson offices of the National Weather Service. Participants included air quality officials from the state and the three counties - Pima, Pinal and Maricopa - that experience massive dust storms called "haboobs" that have gained increased attention in recent years.
The attention itself has been helpful, said Tait.
Tait said his agency's haboob haiku contest attracted attention around the globe and its new slogan "Pull Aside, Stay Alive" is taking hold. ADOT decided to reformat its message, which, in the past, had concentrated on what to do if you were caught in a dust storm.
The current advice is not to drive into one in the first place.
Motorists seem to be getting it, said Capt. Brian Preston, who commands the state's Highway Patrol in the Casa Grande area.
This past year he had to close down roads in his district several times.
Motorists, instead of asking "why," would look down the road and say, "Oh, yeah, look at that. What kind of idiot would drive through it?"
Officials from state and federal agencies at the workshop reported little progress on plans hatched at a dust-storm workshop last year to map land use near trouble spots and install a line of weather stations to spot blowing dust between Tucson and Phoenix.
Meteorologist Ken Waters of the Phoenix National Weather Service office said last year's proposal to erect weather stations every five miles along the I-10 dust corridor from Tucson to Phoenix was not acted on, probably because of the expense - up to $16,000 per station. He suggested a cheaper alternative - volunteers with $100 dust-detection kits linked to a network through their home computers. He said he is building one himself.
Waters also presented a map of dust-caused accidents, drawn from ADOT's records, that pinpointed the state's dust trouble spots.
The vast majority were along the Interstate 10 corridor between Tucson and Phoenix, with hot spots east of Flagstaff on Interstate 40 and in southeastern Arizona along I-10 near Bowie and San Simon.
The sources of the dust are a mix of cleared but undeveloped land, degraded desert and agricultural fields.
Don Gabrielson, director of the Pinal County Air Quality Control District, said some of those sources will be identified by the end of the year in an inventory being done for a state plan, required by the EPA, to reduce dust emissions in Pinal County.
Dust-caused accidents were a tiny percentage of crashes in Arizona - just 1,446 of the 1.5 million crashes in ADOT's database from 2000 to 2011 - but they remain a target for research because they are preventable.
Weather service officials said they continue to work with University of Arizona scientists to produce higher-resolution weather models, and efforts continue to match them with satellite photos of ground conditions.
The weather service has increased the number of weather spotters by 20 percent in dust-prone areas.
ADOT, meanwhile, is testing a camera and weather station system in the Bowie-San Simon area that could be a prototype for others. It will soon install two additional electronic signs along the Tucson-Phoenix corridor that will be equipped with cameras as well.
Dust blows, swirls, and grows
Roadways become danger zones
Pull over, lights off
- winning ADOT "haboob haiku"
Contact reporter Tom Beal at email@example.com or 573-4158.