Innovative Steps

April 15, 2024
How to integrate technology to improve work zone safety

By Matt Junak, Contributing Author

Technology has the potential to increase safety by alerting drivers to work zones. This would decrease speeding and enhance communication between construction workers, drivers, and pedestrians.

With the implementation of technology increasing across the transportation industry, agencies are finding new and innovative ways to reduce work zone crashes while also exploring emerging technologies that will help inform future safety strategies.

For these technologies — such as smart construction safety vests, autonomous truck mounted attenuators (ATMAs) or automated work zone speed safety cameras — to have major, nationwide safety impacts, the industry must consider several critical steps.

When these proactive steps are taken, technologies can be successfully integrated into plans to improve work zone safety.

Convening Stakeholders

It is essential to consistently commit to getting the right stakeholders together to understand one another’s needs and align on objectives. This can look like engaging construction workers, drivers, and pedestrians to set goals and communicate the project’s strategy and plans.

Work zone characteristics such as speed limit changes, the narrowing of lanes, geometric shifts and queues can put all stakeholders at increased risk. Therefore, it is paramount to directly engage with the workers themselves.

Asking about and responding to their biggest safety challenges will allow the industry to leverage technology to make incremental improvements that create significant change. Working with unions and industry organizations such as the American Road & Transportation Builders Association and its state chapter affiliations can connect agencies with the people in work zones every day, to see firsthand the impacts and advancements technology can bring.

Some agencies and crews are using devices worn in workers’ vests that can notify drivers’ phones and other smart devices in cars to give them advance warning about where workers are located.

These connected smart construction safety vests are equally beneficial for workers in long-term zones as well as those moving throughout the day to carry out patching, striping, pothole repair, and similar mobile maintenance activities.

About half of U.S. states also now have research underway or have already deployed Autonomous Truck Mounted Attenuators (ATMA) at the end of worker convoys.

Traditionally, as work crews move down a roadway, one member drives a trailing truck with a crash barrier on the back to alert drivers to the crew’s presence. These driverless ATMAs take the human operator out of harm’s way. They can be deployed to follow slow-moving highway maintenance operations, serving as unmanned crash barriers that shield workers and absorb the impact of a crash from an errant vehicle.

ATMAs use some autonomous vehicle technologies, but their speed, following distance and other movements are monitored and managed by a driver in one of the leading vehicles.

Investing in Work Zone Safety

When work zone safety is a part of the conversation from the start of the project, or at a policy level, technologies can be integrated into plans with greater efficiency and effectiveness.

Work zone safety technologies, such as automated work zone speed safety cameras, queue warning systems and connected devices need to be considered early in budget planning and throughout design and development of maintenance of traffic plans.

Specifications and use cases need to be well-defined for efficient bids and effective use of technology and automated systems. Modeling of detour routes and mobility impacts can be coupled with the use of work zone technology for information dissemination and data collection during construction.

The data collected can be used to adjust conditions during active projects as well as inform future projects of real-world impacts in work zones to increase safety. When technology is an afterthought, it may not be effectively incorporated into each stage of construction, leading to inefficient use of funds and diminished results.

At the policy level, some states have started implementing automated speed enforcement in work zones.

When automated work zone speed safety cameras are staged in work areas, they can identify speeding vehicles and send moving violations by mail. The implementation of these enforcement cameras can help reduce work zone speeds, change driver behavior, and improve work zone safety for workers and drivers.

However, many jurisdictions do not allow automated enforcement. The first step to embarking on these programs is securing legislative authority. Legislative engagement allows conversation to progress around the benefits of automated speed enforcement systems in targeted areas.

Open and Standards-Based Approaches

Leaders in the transportation industry have developed several publicly available resources that enable owners and operators to develop harmonized work zone strategies.

These resources include the Federal Highway Administration’s Work Zone Data Exchange (WZDx) program, Society of Automotive Engineers vehicle-to-everything standards and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ transportation operations manual.

The WZDx feeds, adopted by nearly two dozen states and counting, deliver dynamic work zone data in a uniform format to Google Waze and other navigation applications, traveler information websites and states’ traffic management systems.

Vehicle navigation systems then receive and push out relevant information, such as work zone length and lane closures as drivers approach a construction area.

In work zones, where speeding is especially dangerous and potentially deadly, the integration of technology can bring significant improvements. When effective stakeholder engagement is coupled with early work zone safety planning and standards-based approaches, transportation providers, owners and operators can proactively integrate technologies that best meet the needs of the particular project and community. RB

Matt Junak is a senior project manager in Intelligent Transportation and Emerging Mobility Systems, Associate Fellow, at HNTB.

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