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Embracing Digital Technology to Improve Work Zone Safety

There are many areas that could be improved to better protect the safety and health of LIUNA members and other road workers in highway work zones. Recently, we’ve discussed how to protect workers in moving road vehicles and the importance of expanding the use of positive protection in highway work zones. We’ve also covered the NYS Laborers’ TriFunds’ successful campaign to bring speed cameras to work zones in New York state and shortcomings in how work zone fatalities are collected and reported nationally.

LIUNA General
and LHSFNA Labor
Armand E. Sabitoni

Several of the issues above involve regulatory changes at the federal or state level, which can often take years. However, there are other possible solutions that have the potential to improve work zone safety much more quickly. One potential option is bringing existing digital technology that’s already being used by other industries and consumers to the road construction industry.

“Improving work zone safety for LIUNA members and the traveling public demands an ‘all of the above’ approach where every option is on the table,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Navigation systems and cell phones with navigation apps are already in nearly every car on the road today. If utilized correctly, these technologies could quickly become an important safety tool.”

Technology is often viewed in a negative way when discussing work zone safety, and with good reason – distracted driving from talking and texting on cell phones is responsible for more than 3,100 roadway deaths each year. Despite that fact, we know that cell phones aren’t going away and that onboard technologies like built-in navigation systems will only become more common. So how can we turn these technologies from a negative that distracts drivers and causes crashes into a positive for roadway safety?

Digital Alert Systems

When given the right information, cell phones and onboard navigation systems can be used to deliver advanced warning to drivers of what’s on the road ahead. For example, the onboard navigation systems in millions of Jeep, Dodge and Ram vehicles in the U.S. will soon alert drivers when emergency vehicles like ambulances are approaching.

These digital alerts are possible because companies like Haas Alert are equipping emergency response vehicles with digital transponders that send a signal when the vehicle’s emergency lights are activated. This is the same technology that allows driving apps like Waze, Apple’s CarPlay or Android Auto to know when there’s an accident ahead and adjust your route or arrival time accordingly.

Fortunately, companies like Haas Alert want to bring this technology to more than just emergency and law enforcement vehicles. These same transponders can be equipped on construction vehicles, arrow boards and other construction equipment to help road crews alert drivers about approaching work zones.

Fourteen state DOTs have already started using this technology to push digital alerts to drivers through apps like Waze. According to Haas Alert, digital alerting studies for emergency vehicles found that collision risk could be reduced by 90 percent. In the case of emergency vehicles, this is likely due to drivers receiving warnings sooner than they would if only lights and sirens were used. With these systems, drivers receive real-time digital alerts anytime they come within a half mile of a hazard requiring them to slow down or move over.

In a case study of the Haas Alert system along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, motorist collisions with emergency response vehicles went from nine in 2018 and 12 in 2019 to zero in 2020 after the Haas alert system was implemented. Other Haas studies have shown an 80 percent reduction in hard braking events and a 25 percent reduction in speed in the seconds after receiving an alert.

These digital notifications are another way to communicate with drivers about lane closures, work vehicles or workers in the roadway and the need to reduce speed ahead. While all of these situations can also be conveyed with traditional signage, digital notifications provide another option that may be more likely to get drivers’ attention.

Protecting Everyone on the Road

This year, National Work Zone Awareness Week takes place April 11-15. As always, the main goal is to get drivers to slow down in work zones. Reducing speed when approaching work zones and within work zones helps protect vulnerable road workers as well as the traveling public. The majority of roadway crashes occur when drivers don’t have adequate time to brake. Excessive speed, distracted or impaired driving, road conditions and the design of the work zone can all play a role in how much time drivers have to react.

For more information, visit the Fund’s Work Zone Safety page or check out our work zone safety publications, including the Preventing Intrusions into Highway Work Zones pamphlet and the Flagger Safety and Spotter Safety toolbox talks.

[Nick Fox]

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