ITD's 511 system celebrates decade of service to Idaho travelers

Just before the first snowfall and Thanksgiving travel a decade ago, the 511 travelers service was unveiled, bringing a new level of service and trip preparation to Idaho drivers. Ten years and more than 22.5 million visits after that November day in 2005, an enhanced 511 service thrives.

“Technology in the digital world moves at an ever-accelerating pace,” explained ITD’s 511 manager, Tony Ernest. “Our 511 system has tried hard to keep up with trends and deliver traveler information to the public in whatever form they currently expect to receive it.”

The system began on Nov. 22, 2005. The first snowfall came two days later, as many people were embarking on holiday travel. Prior to the 511 system, ITD used a primitive way of communicating winter-road conditions to the public – by telephone. Each day, an ITD employee made a recording as he or she read the road conditions from across the state.

The Idaho Road Report allowed a grand total of 90 seconds for the statewide recording, a challenge when reporting conditions on nearly 100 roadway sections. Conditions on the ground varied widely across the state with various versions of “slick,” “icy spots,” “snow floor” and “broken snow floor” on tap, not to mention road closures or restrictions. The recording was then played in its entirety to anyone who called into ITD’s winter-road conditions phone number.

With the launch of the 511 system, people could just dial 5-1-1 to connect to an interactive phone system based on voice recognition. They could get detailed up-to-the-minute reports of travel conditions, and only on those highways they cared about. At the same time, ITD rolled out its first 511 website.
“It was primitive by today’s standards, but it still gave citizens their first web access to ITD’s current road conditions,” said Ernest. ”The map-based interface allowed them to click on icons for detailed regional information.” 

In the winter, highways were painted colors on the map, much like they still are today, indicating the severity of winter travel conditions. People could also get reports of all the incidents occurring along any requested highway in the state.

From the start, 511 developed a close working relationship with ITD’s Commercial Vehicle Services (CVS) section. Specialized 511 information was offered to Idaho’s trucking community through the 5-1-1 phone system and companion websites. Over time, the system became so good at reflecting current commercial vehicle restrictions across the state that CVS now uses it as their go-to reference for issuing oversize permits.

“Since then, 511 development has moved rapidly,” Ernest said. “Two years after our initial roll-out, we introduced a new high-bandwidth website, offering a user interface based on Google Maps, with zoomable map views and a much wider range of features.” 

ITD integrated Idaho’s AMBER Alert system for abducted children into the 511 system in 2007. Here are the other innovations:

- In 2008, ITD made enhancements to the 5-1-1 phone system, improving voice recognition and text-to-speech software.

- In 2008, ITD also introduced a “Mobile-based” website, with a highly simplified user interface, designed to allow users to access 511 through the tiny screens available on web-capable cell phones at the time.

- In late 2009, ITD added RWIS (Roadway Weather Information System) weather-sensor data to the 511 websites.

- In 2010, ITD added a Transit website to 511, showing bus schedules and route information for various transit companies across the state.

- Also in 2010, ITD added National Weather Service severe-storm warnings to the high-bandwidth website. This was added to all 511 websites and the phone system.

- In late 2010, ITD replaced that old, obsolete first-generation 511 website (the one originally launched) with a new low-bandwidth website that was easier to operate and understand. This is the current “Streamlined” version.

- ITD’s 511 system was nationally recognized when it received the 2010 AASHTO President’s Transportation Award for Highway Traffic Safety.

- In 2011, high-bandwidth website users gained the ability to create and save their favorite routes in their own personalized user accounts. 

- In early 2012, people became able to set up live notifications of any 511 event, by text or e-mail, for saved routes.

- Also in 2012, ITD implemented a set of fully automated 511 Twitter feeds, also with the idea of pushing live 511 notifications to Idaho travelers.

- In 2013, ITD modified its high-bandwidth website so that users with personalized accounts could make winter-road condition reports directly into the 511 system, for other travelers to see.

- In 2013, ITD also implemented fully automated hazardous-travel condition alerts on the high-bandwidth 511 website. These are generated by ITD’s suite of RWIS sites across the state. Since then, automated hazard alerts have been implemented for all online 511 products.

- In 2014, ITD rolled out a free 511 smartphone app for both iOS and Android platforms.

Earlier this year, ITD upgraded the smartphone app to give hands-free, eyes-free verbal notification of approaching road hazards for motorists.

“In late August, we rolled out a third generation of the 511 website, replacing our ‘Full Feature’ high-bandwidth web offering,” said Ernest.  “The new site offers all the functionality of the earlier high-bandwidth site, with a bunch of new features and a more intuitive user interface. The system upgrade also features a display of all messages currently active on ITD’s permanent Variable Message Signs across the state on all of our websites.”

Idaho’s system came about as the result of a Federal Communications Commission ruling in 2000 designating 511 as the nation’s traveler-information phone number.

Published 11-20-15