Frustration — and even panic — can mount when a motorist is stranded on a limited-access highway during a blizzard. Those traveling alone, in particular, want to know the status of rescue efforts or whether help of any kind, even food or drink, is on the way. An official update every now and then would help.
State officials Thursday unveiled a new communications system — 511PAConnect — to keep motorists informed during such emergencies. The idea grew out of the predicament that last January confronted hundreds of motorists trapped on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for more than 24 hours. In the aftermath, the turnpike was criticized for failing to adequately prepare for the storm, for the many hours it took to get traffic moving again and for doing little to communicate in the interim with those stranded.
It is good when government attempts to improve on its shortcomings, and that is what 511PAConnect tries to do. From now on, in the event of a road closure expected to last more than two hours, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency will send out an alert to all smartphones in the area, similar to how Amber Alerts are issued. Motorists then could register information about themselves and their vehicles and request updates by call or text from the turnpike or Department of Transportation.
Once a vehicle is registered, the state can use GPS to pinpoint its location, and that alone could offer solace to those concerned about a medical emergency or worried about being isolated and alone. The updates from the turnpike or PennDOT could give the status of road-clearing efforts or provide safety information.
The initiative is sensitive to privacy concerns, too. Once the emergency is over, the state will erase all data about those who registered for the updates.
The system will work only in areas with smartphone service — and that can be dodgy in mountainous areas — and motorists still must call 911 to report emergencies. Still, the system, believed to be the first of its kind, is a laudable effort to help motorists weather a trying ordeal. As turnpike CEO Mark Compton said, “Just knowing someone is out there ... can be a comfort.”