Research Drives Change At Rest Stops

In an effort to encourage more use of safety rest areas and reduce drowsy driving, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is bolstering amenities and plans to install new signage at select rest areas across the state.

Drowsy driving is conservatively estimated to cause at least 1,550 deaths nationwide each year and $12.5 billion in monetary damage.

Motorists would stop more frequently at rest areas if they knew what rest areas offered, according to market research completed in 2009.

MnDOT will design and install highway symbol signs to advertise the amenities at 13 rest areas in a pilot project funded by MnDOT’s Transportation Research Implementation Group.

“We are using this as a way to entice drivers to take a break, pull over and refresh before returning to the road,” said Robert Williams, MnDOT Safety Rest Area Program Manager and the project proponent.

Rest areas in Brainerd and Cass Lake, Minn., can now offer a tourism-related gift shop, thanks to a change in state law.
Rest areas in Brainerd and Cass Lake, Minn., can now offer a tourism-related gift shop, thanks to a change in law.

Amenities differ greatly between rest areas within the state, as well as across the country; this depends on when they were built and whether they are located on an interstate, state highway or toll road.

Older, smaller rest areas may only have a bathroom and picnic area, while newer facilities often have features such as children’s play areas, staffed travel counters and dog runs.

In the future, the state may consider new amenities such as gift shops, adult exercise equipment to rejuvenate motorists, electrical vehicle charging stations and perhaps even electrification stations to allow truck drivers to power their TV or refrigerator without idling their vehicle.

Research has found that as the spacing of rest areas increases beyond 30 miles, the number of drowsy driving crashes goes up exponentially, Williams said.

Each sign will advertise up to six amenities.
Each sign will advertise up to six amenities.

Proposed Signage

Symbols on each sign will identify up to six amenities, such as in the example above, which depicts an assisted restroom, gift shop, ticket sales, EV charging stations, childrens’ playlot and adult exercise equipment.

MnDOT will evaluate the pilot project to determine if the symbol signs are effective in communicating to travelers the amenities offered at individual rest areas and if the signs were a factor that encouraged them to stop.

If the two-year project goes well, the state may add similar signs to the remaining 39 Class I safety rest areas (those rest areas equipped with flush toilets).

Some of the signs will require a request to FHWA for experimentation.  The intent is to install the signs in the summer of 2015 at rest areas on northbound I-35, eastbound I-94, as well as at the Brainerd Lakes Area Welcome Center on Hwy. 371.

Rest Area Offerings Increase

Although travelers and state DOTs would often like to introduce new amenities, state and federal laws limit what states can offer.

Toll roads and highways built before 1960 (the Interstate era), mostly in the East Coast or Chicago area, have fewer federal restrictions than rest areas in Minnesota and may feature restaurants or convenience stores.

Changes to Minnesota state law in 2005 and recent changes to federal law in MAP-21 now allow limited commercial activities, such as tourism-related gift shops and ticket sales at rest areas. MnDOT and its partners have taken advantage of some of these changes at its visitor centers in Brainerd/Baxter and Cass Lake.

In addition, the state is exploring the concept of using rest areas as transit transfer facilities, where long-distance bus carriers and regional transit lines can exchange passengers.

These transit hubs would shorten travel times for long-distance travelers and allow the rest areas to serve multiple functions while providing a comfortable waiting area for passengers.

Rest areas
Pilot locations are circled.

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