Saving Lives by Designing Safe Traffic Flow in Work Zones

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Road work is dangerous whether you are constructing new highways, filling potholes, replacing water and sewer lines, repairing utilities or trimming trees.

Projects may take a matter of minutes or many months. No matter what the duration, a roadway work zone creates a traffic obstruction requiring signage and other warning equipment to catch the attention of motorists, slow the pace of traffic and redirect motorists around the work zone.

Planning needs to occur ahead of time concerning what kind of warning devices to use and where to place them. It should include a map indicating the traffic diversion plan from first warning sign — which should be well ahead of the work zone — to point of exit.

Sobering Statistics

The national Traffic Incident Management Network (TIM) called the number of highway work zone fatalities nationwide “epidemic.” TIM reported that more than 600 fatal highway work zone crashes occurred from March 2014 to March 2015 — an average of about 50 per month.

According to TIM, “Work zone deaths occur at a rate five times more than that of all law enforcement, fire, and rescue and EMS in-the-line-of-duty traffic-related deaths combined; but there are usually no high-profile ceremonies, processions, honor guards, salutes, or memorials on behalf of highway work zone victims.”

Not all worker accidents involve collisions with motorists. In reviewing 2010 statistics about work zone deaths nationwide, the Federal Highway Administration discovered that 48 percent were caused by heavy construction equipment that ran over or backed over employees.

The dangers posed by equipment within the work zone are illustrated by a series of animated videos created by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The TIM Network notes a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report saying “75 percent of all crash victim costs are paid by the public through taxes, insurance premiums, and project and travel delays. The lifetime costs to society for each fatality are $1.4 million.”

Aside from increasing awareness among those who drive vehicles in or near work zones, there are many things work crews can do to improve their safety and get jobs done on time.

Three Best Practices in Roadwork Zones

Researchers have studied many practices for minimizing fatalities, injuries and delays in work along roadways. Information is particularly abundant at the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse.

Here are some key ways work teams are creating safer work zones.

1. Assessing Danger Levels

Much of the roadway work that occurs in municipalities concerns repair of utilities. Indiana’s Wayne State University coordinated production of utility work zone guidelines for the Federal Highway Administration.

One major point that the document presents is the necessity of assessing the danger level of every work zone setting no matter how briefly it will exist.

According to the guidelines, managers evaluating safety of projects need to consider job duration, type of highway or municipal roadway and the location of the work zone. The last item divides work zones into three levels of danger based on whether they are near or directly on roads.

2. Using Assessment to Select Warning Devices

After assessing the danger level of a work zone, it’s time to select efficient devices for preparing motorists to anticipate work zones and to guide them around these areas.

These devices may include cones, flags, fluorescent barrels and portable divider walls, pilot vehicles with flashing lights, temporary rumble strips and signage that is printed or electronic.

Questions to ask before selecting work zone warning devices, include: Is the site over the rise of a hill, around a corner or on a straightaway in plain view? Does it create a brief bump in the flow of traffic or slow movement to a crawl for a long time due to closing a two-lane road down to one lane? Is the zone along a high- or low-speed length of road?

The answers help in deciding matters such as where the first warning sign should be placed and how far from the beginning of the work zone in order to give motorists plenty of slow-down time.

Also, as the drive to make work zones more digitally “smart” grows, workers likely will be equipped with clothing containing sensors that can warn of their presence relative to digitally equipped backhoes and other motorized equipment.

3. Planning and Mapping Work Zones

Traffic control plan software aids the process of work zone planning. With this software, you’re able to quickly map out a work zone with easy-to-use tools and even make a complex plan look simple.

For managers and contractors who need software that is more simple to use than CAD drawings or can’t afford the time learning such complicated tools, faster design products are available.

One product is Invarion RapidPlan, which is much simpler than CAD programs and doesn’t require extensive training. For more information, please click here to contact Invarion.

National Work Zone Awareness Week

Twelve years ago during National Work Zone Awareness Week, then FHWA Administrator Mary Peters did something unusual to highlight the incivility and perils of careless driving in highway work zones.

Peters set up her office desk in the middle of an interstate interchange and announced that work zones are the “offices” of road workers. Of course, this is true for municipal road workers as well.

Commenting on the consequences of work zone accidents, Peters said, “The human cost is the most tragic and the most critical. But there’s also the economic cost that results from congestion, unexpected delays and delayed freight deliveries.”

National Work Zone Awareness Week 2016 will be held April 11 to 15. But every day of the year is a time for safety awareness in work zones.