Web Exclusive: Smart vests

Improving work-zone safety through advanced technology

Brian Watson / June 12, 2017

Roadway construction already is a dangerous working environment with over 700 fatalities annually in work zones alone. With connected and automated vehicles (CAVs) beginning to launch on our roadways, workers and motorists will have even more dangers facing them each day. Because the majority of those killed or injured in roadway work zones are motorists, not the workers themselves, CAVs will eventually make our roads safer by eliminating or reducing distracted driver causes; however, there are many looming issues that must be resolved before the massive rollout of CAV technology begins.

CAVs use sensors in the vehicles to determine road conditions, lane closures, weather, queue warnings, platooning and speed harmonization. The sensors “speak” to other vehicles, and also can receive information from roadside infrastructure units as well. For instance, when a vehicle is entering a work zone, the vehicle receives a notice to slow down or is notified of a lane closure from a roadside unit in the work zone. These alerts in theory would “wake up” a distracted driver who may not notice the typical work-zone warning signs on the roadways.

However, as of now, there are variances in the ways that work zones are set up. Many work zones are not considered “smart” (i.e. connected to a transportation-management center) and therefore cannot give motorists in CAVs a notification that they even exist. A smart work zone is a road work zone in which technology is employed to increase safety and provide information. Types of information that smart work zones collect and disseminate are basic safety messages, queue warning messages, and details on the presence and speed of vehicles entering a work zone. The bottom line is, if the work zone is not smart or connected, then it is not taking advantage of the enhanced vehicle-safety features geared toward reducing distracted driving. In order to negate some of these safety issues, new work-zone technologies have been invented such as connected worker vests and autonomous truck-mounted attenuators. By notifying workers and motorists of work-zone intrusions, these tools can, and will, save many lives that were once lost on our roadways.

Connected vests use dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) technology embedded into a pocket inside the vest to emit a stream of information that notifies a CAV that humans are present on the roadway. The DSRC device is connected to the temporary traffic-control devices and uses GPS to pinpoint the location of active workers on the jobsite via radio frequency. Several prototypes are in development today, and many have different features to optimize safety. This basic one-way communication system will give the driver a notification in their car to slow down or change lanes. When CAVs hit their critical mass on the streets, this technology will become a valuable tool in protecting workers on site. Many of the prototypes in existence have a high rate of success in notifying drivers of oncoming work-zone activities, which will go far in saving the lives of those most vulnerable on our roadways. Departments of Transportation will hopefully begin adding specifications into their jobs to expedite the use of this technology.

Another example of a connected vest product is one that senses when a vehicle is entering a work zone, then alerts the worker wearing the vest, as well as the oncoming driver of the vehicle. The system uses haptic, visual and auditory alerts. The purpose of three alerts is to ensure that all senses are notified.

Imagine using a jackhammer on the side of the road and only having a haptic vibrating alert. Obviously, the user will not feel the alert. A similar idea applies for the auditory alerts that may not be heard over the loud noise found in a work zone. A visual alert is the other line of defense toward an oncoming vehicle. Not only does it help to notify the worker, but the flashing light also is bright enough to be seen by the driver. By combining all three of these alerts together, it lowers the probability that the worker will not notice the impending danger.

The second technology that will improve worker and driver safety is autonomous truck-mounted attenuators (TMAs). One ATSSA-member company has developed this technology, which uses the systems found in autonomous vehicles, and outfitted a TMA with the ability to follow a mobile work zone without the need for a driver.

Currently, we use humans to drive a truck that is designed to get crashed into and absorb the brunt of a crash. With this new technology, the human is eliminated from the equation, and worker safety is significantly improved. The one hang-up with autonomous TMAs is that most states do not allow autonomous vehicles on the road without a driver, so for the time being, these vehicles are driven by a remote control from a truck moving ahead of the TMA. States like Florida are currently testing and using these Autonomous TMAs to determine the additional benefits of the technology. As we move closer to CAVs on our streets, states will have to address the emerging issues related to driverless vehicles, and ensure the rollout of safety technologies are not hindered.  

As auto manufacturers move ahead with their vehicle technologies, the roadway safety industry will need to advance its safety protocols in lockstep with the automotive industry to help keep workers and motorists safe. For more information on new innovations in roadway safety, please visit innovate.atssa.com.

About the Author

Watson is director of new programs for ATSSA.

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