2009 marks the 10-year anniversary of National Work Zone Awareness Week. As anniversaries often do, this one calls for a reassessment: What progress has the roadway safety industry made during this time? What new products and innovations have improved work-zone safety?
This question was posed to a variety of experts: transportation agency representatives, roadway safety manufacturers and installers and others. The sheer amount of information provided was impressive. This article explores some of the issues faced by the roadway safety industry, together with just some of the truly innovative products and methods helping to meet those challenges.
Whole part improvement
If one could point to a single element that has had the most significant impact on work-zone safety, it would have to be the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) revisions to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and the Final Rules for Subpart J (Work Zone Safety and Mobility) and the addition of Subpart K (Temporary Traffic Control Devices), which changed the face of the roadway safety industry forever. These final rules took guidelines that had been promulgated in Part 6 of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), together with “other actions to systematically address the safety and mobility impacts of work zones” and made them mandatory for highway projects funded either wholly or in part by federal-aid dollars, as well as encouraging their use on nonfederal-aid roadway projects.
The purpose of regulations in Subpart K is to decrease the likelihood of highway work-zone fatalities and injuries to workers and road users. Work-zone safety and mobility systems and procedures became far-reaching and systematic.
Easy to see
In an effort to eliminate traffic congestion and travel delays, an increasing amount of roadway work is being done at night. This makes it critical for drivers to be able to see traffic-control devices, barriers and roadway workers from far enough away to take appropriate actions. This challenge to the roadway safety industry has been successfully addressed in two important ways:
High-visibility safety apparel: David B. Rush, work-zone safety program manager of the Virginia DOT, said, “Nearly half of all workers struck and killed in work zones are struck by construction vehicles within the lane closure.” Implementation of the standards set forth by both the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) regarding high-visibility vests and garments have helped make workers much more visible to roadway users. Said Rich McNeeley, market manager of Reflexite: “Ninety percent of the market currently uses Class 2 garments. Expanding the definition of roadway workers to include first-responders, emergency personnel and police, all using Class 3 (highest reflective garments), has definitely increased work-zone safety.”
Device visibility: Retroreflectivity is the buzzword for increased device conspicuity, and with good reason. This scientific term describes the ability of any surface to return light to its source. Traffic signs, channelizing devices, pavement markings and work-zone vehicles are more visible when they use retroreflective sheeting or similar work-zone markings to help drivers see better in all environmental conditions. Marcia Lozier, communications manager for 3M, explained, “Wet reflective pavement markings include reflective optics that actually work with water so they remain highly visible even in rainy conditions.” Added Rush, “Brighter devices help better define the travel path and guide motorists through the work zone.”
The stated purpose of Subpart J Final Rule is, “Work zones directly impact the safety and mobility of road users and highway workers . . . Addressing these safety and mobility issues requires considerations that start early (emphasis added) in project development . . . ” Discussions with roadway safety experts highlighted specific areas that have made a significant positive impact on work-zone safety:
- Better work-zone planning: When attention is given earlier in the project development and implementation process to work-zone safety and mobility, rather than waiting until much later in the design process, it helps roadway workers “know exactly what to expect,” according to Rush. “Designating projects as ‘significant’ ensures that safety of workers, motorists and pedestrians, as well as the movement of motorists through the construction/maintenance operation, is a high priority for the project design team.”
- Training: The Work Zone Safety and Mobility Final Rule includes requirements for training those personnel “involved in the development, design, implementation, operation, inspection, and enforcement of work zone related transportation management and traffic control . . . ” According to Andrew Kramer, president of National Capital Industries, “Education and certification of roadway workers can’t be emphasized enough. It has made such a positive difference in safety for both drivers and workers.”
- ITS safety and mobility solutions: Using a real-time information system to notify drivers of traffic delays, adverse roadway conditions, detours and alternative routes, lane closures and changes in speed limit can benefit both drivers and roadway workers. Rush stated, “ . . . it can improve traffic flow through a corridor by informing motorists . . . allowing them to make travel adjustments and (possibly) avoid the work zone altogether.” In order to be effective on an interstate highway system, such variable-message signs should be placed five to 10 miles ahead of the work zone, allowing drivers an opportunity to change their route or reduce their speed when approaching the work zone.
Increased public awareness: An integral part of many highway projects, especially those in urban and high-use travel corridors, is communication with the traveling public to help ensure their awareness of how a highway project can affect their travel and commuting plans. Many states have doubled the fines for drivers caught speeding through work zones, as well as providing daily and even hourly real-time traffic updates using real-time work-zone data and cameras with streaming video that can be viewed on websites. In addition, the efforts undertaken nationwide through community relations activities during National Work Zone Awareness Week remind drivers of the dangers.
When the first safety barricades were introduced to the work zone back in 1969, they were crude, rudimentary devices: simple polyethylene tubing filled with water, complete with plywood fender panels. Other earlier devices were heavy and cumbersome and “were made of hexfoam. They looked like a beehive on the inside,” according to Kim Ludwig, manager of marketing and business development at Quixote Corp. She added, “Industry standards have changed significantly. We use better materials, have better designs and have implemented better standards.”
The FHWA established guidance on crash testing work-zone traffic-control devices in two separate memoranda: one in 1997 and the other in 1998. They established four categories, and “All new work zone hardware on the NHS (national highway system) must now comply and be crashworthy, with the exception of Category IV trailer mounted devices.”
According to Subpart K, positive protection devices are “devices that contain and/or redirect vehicles and meet the crashworthiness evaluation criteria contained in National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) Report No. 350 . . . ” “Under NCHRP No. 350, all category 1-, 2- and 3-type devices need to be crashworthy if struck by vehicles,” said Rush. “Devices this requirement covers include cones, drums, vertical panels and barricades, signs and sign supports, impact attenuators and concrete barriers.”
Sign supports must be designed to break away from the vehicle that strikes them, or they must perform so they cannot enter or severely damage the vehicle’s cabin.
The use of lighter and better materials led to another innovation: fully mobile truck-mounted attenuators (TMA). Jan Miller, business development manager for TrafFix Devices Inc., said, “Significant advances over the last 10 years in the engineering, quality and effectiveness of truck-mounted and trailer attenuators has led to increased use, saving the lives of many motorists and workers.”
The latest innovation in the field? A self-restoring system made from plastic that returns to its original shape after impact, with no need to replace internal cartridges before they’re ready to save lives again.
Done it differently
Roadway and work-zone safety professionals are an innovative bunch who never seem to say, “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Leaders in the industry are always looking for ways to make it better, more cost-effective, more portable and user-friendly. There are cutting-edge inventions happening all over the country, like the reflective tape that works better on a rainy night than during a sunny afternoon or the automated assistance flagging device that does the work of two flaggers, with just one person controlling it, out of harm’s way.
Work-zone safety professionals are working hard every day to help save lives on America’s roadways. With this kind of commitment, who knows what incredible progress the next 10 years will bring?