Federal Policy Leaders Can Help Ensure Safer Work Zones
New technology is advancing the field of Positive Work Zone Protection. As it pushes for greater safety, U.S. DOT can help clear barriers and make it standard practice.
By Gregory G. Nadeau, Publisher of InfraTalk America
U.S. DOT’s Call to Action on road safety is a welcome and necessary response to rising traffic deaths, but it’s important federal actions don’t overlook the brave and hardworking men and women who build and repair our road system.
Work zone deaths are up 46 percent since 2010, according to the National Safety Council. These crashes are claiming upwards of 850 lives annually and resulting in roughly 40,000 costly and traumatic injuries.
Fortunately, the field of work zone safety is having a moment. Innovative new technologies — such as truck-mounted attenuators or movable barrier systems — are coming online that offer flexible and affordable protection for workers in a range of construction scenarios.
These strategies are too numerous to name individually, but collectively they are known as “positive work zone protection.” Research jointly funded by the Federal Highway Administration has demonstrated the cost effectiveness of these technologies to save lives and prevent injuries.
But too often institutional policies are still a barrier. For example, state-level procurement rules often compel federal grantees to choose the lowest bidder on a project and may perversely penalize firms that have planned for greater investments in work zone protection.
California’s leadership in this area, however, could be an example for federal officials trying to reverse some of the recent rise in roadway deaths. California had 192 work zone deaths in 2020. Since 2021, the Caltrans has required project teams to formally consider a range of Positive Work Zone Protection strategies on state highway projects.
Now a new bill would go further. A measure put forward by Assembly Member Blanca Rubio (D-48) would require the use of “barriers and other devices placed between workers and motorized traffic for all construction, utility work, maintenance, and repair activities on state highways,” if certain criteria are met. Furthermore, the bill — AB 752 — would make the costs of the work zone protection activities state funded, holding local project sponsors harmless.
California has seen success by implementing innovative new safety technology. For example, in 2015, the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District took action to address a long-standing safety problem: head-on collisions on the Golden Gate Bridge. According to reporting by CNBC, since the 1970s, the bridge had been the site of 16 fatal head-on crashes.
In 2015, the state used the Road Zipper movable barrier system to install a barrier wall between opposing traffic lanes. The Road Zipper movable barrier system — an example of an innovative technology that is used to protect construction teams in work zones — allows the Golden Gate Highway and Transportation District to quickly adjust the inbound and outbound lanes to better accommodate commuter traffic. The Marin Independent Journal reported in 2020 that the barrier wall had reduced head-on crashes from an average of 2.8 a year to zero.
I want to acknowledge that in its Call to Action, U.S. DOT is soliciting voluntary actions from private groups and individuals. However, I want to urge the agency to also consider how federal policy changes can help private companies in the safety space spur further innovation and better outcomes for workers. Many of these crews are being called upon to complete the greatest infrastructure investment in generations.
Gregory Nadeau is the Chairman and CEO of Infrastructure Ventures. He was the Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration from 2015 to 2017.