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“511 Day” celebrates service that keeps travelers informed and safe

Published: May. 11, 2022 at 7:32 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - School will be out soon, and you’re probably itching to get out on the open road and take some summer trips.

But once you hit the interstates and state highways, you’re bound to run into construction, which could clog traffic and delay or potentially ruin your commute.

So, while you may not have May 11 marked as a holiday on your calendar, the South Dakota Department of Transportation does.

After all it is 5/11, or “511 Day” to celebrate and raise awareness for a free service that goes back over 25 years, informing drivers at the touch of a button (or three) the weather conditions, road closures, and construction zones — and several other things — on the routes they may be traveling.

It started as a phone number to call, then became a website, and is now a phone app called SDDOT 511.

Carrie Anderson directs communications at K&J Trucking — where her drivers deliver food across the country.

“Those that have experience that are coming to us are already being addicted to 5-1-1 because it’s so helpful, Anderson said.”

It’s a healthy addiction, so long as drivers use it when they’re not actually driving.

Anderson calls the SDDOT 511 app “integral” to K&J’s operation.

”Our customers are paying us to get the freight there safely and on time,” Anderson said. “And, of course, our top priority is making sure our drivers are safe. Second priority would be obviously the freight.”

The trucks travel all over the country, encountering year-round severe weather and the closed interstates and highways that come with it.

The “511″ app gets the most downloads and engagements in the winter, when snow, ice, and wind makes driving, and roads, the most dangerous.

”We can look ahead and see what we’ve got coming toward us, or what we’re going to run into,” said Jim Peterson, a K&J driver who often travels to the west coast and encounters blizzards along the way every winter, particularly in desolate Wyoming.

Once winter is over, it’s construction season. The 511 app is constantly updated by work zone managers and SD DOT engineers so drivers know where there is road work ahead. And just about everything they need to know about the road work.

”Which lanes does it affect — the driving lane, the passing lane, east bound, west bound,” said Harry Johnson, an SD DOT Dept. of Transportation engineer for the Sioux Falls area.

“Which ramps (are getting worked on), which exits. Is it major construction? Is it minor construction? Is the duration a day, a week, a month, a year? So, all of that is taken from the contractor’s schedule of what’s going on.”

If there are detours, you can find alternative routes. You can view camera shots of certain spots.

Traffic incidents are also updated constantly on the app, which has over four million user engagements over the years.

Johnson is appreciative of drivers who inform SD DOT when something isn’t updated, or when a camera isn’t working.

“We value all of that input from them and we try to make it better all the time,” Johnson said.

The website, sd511.org, has over 19 million engagements.

And then, there’s the old fashioned way. Over four million phone calls have been made to South Dakota’s 511 since it started in November of 1996.

The service has been handy for Anderson when she’s not at work. She takes her family camping and on road trips every year, and if there is a threat of severe weather or a closed road in the area she is headed, she’ll pull up the app while her husband is driving and figure out a way to re-route the trip.

”I used to live in Huron, and we often had highway closures in that area,” Johnson said. “Highway 14 or Highway 37 would close down and we would come to Sioux Falls all the time to see family. So, I definitely decided not to take trips before, based off 5-1-1.”

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