Every Innovation Starts With A Conversation

By Angie Schmitt

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Image via MaineDOT

A host of new and emerging technologies are available to help prevent deaths and injuries in construction work zones. But limited information is a major obstacle to their adoption.  

That’s according to a pair of new studies (part 1, part 2) published by the Transportation Research Board at the National Academies of Sciences. These studies aim to help demystify “Work Zone Intrusion Technologies,” which researchers say have the potential to “help eliminate motorist and worker injuries and fatalities.” 

The research teams, led by Oregon State University and University of Alabama, identify 28 potential technologies to prevent work zone intrusion, 15 of which are currently market ready. Those include wearable lighting, movable barriers, automated flaggers, auditory warning systems, connected vehicles and others. 

“The current state of the art and practice reveal that several technologies can considerably improve worker safety by connecting a priori information about work zone hazards with real-time information about the workers and equipment,” say authors John Gambatese, Joseph Louis, and Chukwuma Nnaj. “However, there is presently a lack of large-scale adoption of these technologies by roadway contractors.” 

A survey was conducted to better understand the scale of adoption as well as gauge users’ satisfaction with various technologies generating 101 usable responses from 40 states. The primary respondents were in management roles at state Departments of Transportation. 

More than half of respondents reported they were not using any technology to prevent work zone intrusion by drivers. Among those that had adopted one or more of the available technologies, the most common were “dynamic changeable message sign and speed enforcement” and a “queue warning system with a networked cone/barrel sensor.” 

Image via MaineDOT

Although they are not yet in wide use, many of the available technologies were highly rated by users. The most highly rated technologies — movable barrier systems, intrusion alert systems, automated flaggers with intrusion alerts and automated equipment with a truck-mounted attenuator — were rated “highly effective” on average by users. 

Each of these technologies is defined in greater detail in the second study. For example, it states that: “An automated flagger assistance device (AFAD) is a mobile unit with signal lights or stop/slow signs to alert vehicles to stop or proceed and a mechanical gate system that provides an alert to drivers. Audio systems, while not a standard feature, can be installed to provide audio feedback in case a vehicle moves forward during a stop sign.” 

The first study notes that even within the industry, understanding of the various technologies and capabilities is limited. To support wider adoption, the study offers a taxonomy of available technologies, and a decision tree (“decision support system”) to help guide project managers to the best fitting technology based on project type, size and other considerations. 

Also included are a handful of case studies from states that are using the technology in real world settings, including CalTrans’ experience with an automatic flagger and Oregon DOT’s experience with movable barriers. These case studies identify potential obstacles to wider adoption and help define what contexts in which users view them as most appropriate.  

In 2021 there were 821 reported work zone fatalities in the United States, representing an increase compared to pre-pandemic years.