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Starting Monday, 20 million more people will begin getting the 4-1-1 on 511, a free traveler's information service reached by dialing those three digits.

Starting Monday, 20 million more people will begin getting the 4-1-1 on 511, a free traveler's information service reached by dialing just those three digits.

Minnesotans will be the first people in eight states served by BellSouth to be able to dial 511, using a series of voice commands to have local traffic or weather conditions read to them.

Seven more states--Alaska, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Vermont--will get the service by year's end, according to Nadr Essabhoy, applications marketing director for BeVocal, which is providing voice-recognition software for the BellSouth 511 service.

Two years ago, the Federal Communications Commission set aside 511 for "travelers information" only, in the same way 411 was reserved for telephone listings or 911 was reserved to reach emergency call centers. At the time, the traffic information collected by police was already available via phone, but people had to know any of more than 300 different 1-800 telephone numbers that existed.

"This is a little easier to remember," Essabhoy said.

BellSouth's plans will expand 511 into about 10 percent of the country--the largest advance yet. It is already available in four additional states.

Where the rubber meets the road
Every police or highway patrol in the nation feeds traffic information into not just their own computers, but into centralized databases at the U.S. Department of Transportation. It's this information that's been made available now through 511 and hundreds of other telephone numbers.

Many police in larger urban areas get their information from rubber sensor strips laid across highways. They are battered every day by hundreds of thousands of cars. If the strips are crushed only every few seconds it means there is a traffic jam. If there is a beep every millisecond, traffic is screaming along.

Police in smaller cities or less-populated areas still generally rely on visual assessments and on radioing in traffic reports.