September 23, 2009 By Matt Williams
Those who've been stuck on the road in the middle of a slow-moving commute probably have wished they could give the highway a piece of their mind.
Thanks to the Twitter phenomenon, now the reverse it true: Roadways are updating the public in real time.
Some state and local transportation departments are launching Twitter accounts not just for the main agency, but also for individual roads and construction projects. While some might argue this is overkill, the agencies see this granular approach to Twitter as a no-lose proposition: It's another way to disseminate traffic updates on a free and popular platform.
But some auto safety experts wonder if they're sending a mixed message about distracted driving.
On Tuesday, the Utah Department of Transportation launched a Twitter account @SR92UDOT for State Route 92, which is being widened beginning this month. Scott Thompson, spokesman for the transportation department's third region, said it's not something the department will necessarily do for every road construction project.
Utah isn't the only state to launch additional Twitter accounts. Approximately 20 states reportedly offer traffic reports on Twitter. For example, the North Carolina Department of Transportation has launched a suite of Twitter feeds categorized by either region or road. For instance, NCDOT I-40 sends out information about traffic, road construction or lane closures for only that road.
Some experts say texting behind the wheel is as dangerous as drunk driving. Many traffic fatalities have been caused in recent years by distracted drivers who were texting.
Texting while driving is illegal in approximately 20 states, and more are expected to join. Some cities have outlawed it where there isn't a statewide ban. National Public Radio reported Tuesday that Utah's penalty for it is said to be the most severe in the country: up to three months and a $750 fine for a first offense, and up to 15 years in prison if you kill someone.
Auto safety experts are concerned the transportation agencies that use Twitter are sending a contradictory message. For example, Paving the Way, a Web site made by Columbus, Ohio, for road construction updates, has a Twitter account that contains a mildly ironic banner: "PLS DNT TXT + DRIVE."
Transportation agencies don't condone it. The Washington State Department of Transportation, one of the first government agencies to embrace Twitter, has a "Know Before You Go" safety moniker that's repeated on its Twitter feeds and other Web-based communication channels.