Improving Safety in the Work Zone

by Courtney Murtagh, Intern, and Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

In 2015, 860 vehicle crashes in roadway work zones were reported in Massachusetts, and over 96,000 crashes in work zones nationwide. Researchers and state officials have been examining the causes, and options for reducing work zone crashes, injuries, and fatalities.

wokzone
Work zone area on the MassPike during the removal of toll booths. (Boston Herald, photo credit Angela Rowlings)

With summer in full swing, we find ourselves in the midst of another road infrastructure improvement and repair season. Drivers may have noticed an increase in the number of work zones along state and town highways in Massachusetts. During these warmer months, drivers need to take extra precautions for their safety and the safety of road construction workers.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recorded a total of 765 work zone traffic fatalities nationwide in 2016, in the Fatality Analysis and Recording System (FARS). This is a 7% increase from 2015.  Many of these fatalities (83%) were of motor vehicle drivers or passengers, the remainder were pedestrians, bicyclists, and other non-motorists. Relatedly, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that there were 143 deaths of road workers at construction sites. This count overlaps with the FARS figures. Forty percent of the traffic fatalities in work zones are from rear-end collisions, as vehicles fail to slow down adequately approaching and traveling through the work zones.

According to the FHWA, there were 96,626 crashes in work zones in 2015, a 42% increase since 2013. The same study showed that nationwide there were on average 70 work zone traffic crashes with injury per day that year.

For Massachusetts, the State Police reported 860 work zone crashes for 2015. The data show that work zone crashes occur most often between May and September, during the day, and on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Drivers should be especially cautious and attentive when traveling through work zones, as construction workers may be present and as drivers may be asked to stop.

Speed limits in work zones are set according to state law. The law allows for the doubling of speeding fines in work zone areas.

In 2016, MassDOT created a Work Zone Safety Task Force to consider innovative engineering and technology-related solutions for better work zone safety. The Work Zone Task Force implemented some new safety features in work zones in 2017, including portable rumble strips, and flashing blue LED lights in work zones to simulate a police presence and get drivers to reduce their speed. Another type of technology being considered are smart cones, which communicate with construction workers to warn them when potential threats, such as a speeding or erratically driving vehicle, are approaching a work zone. A previous Innovative Outlook article discussed some of the technology options for improved work zone safety in more detail.

Another potential way to reduce work zone crashes is the ‘zipper’ merge. The zipper occurs when two lanes of traffic equally merge into one. Research conducted at UMass Amherst by Dr. Michael Knodler and Civil Engineering graduate students Alyssa Ryan and Francis Tainter has been investigating the potential use of zipper merges to help improve traffic safety. UMass Amherst’s zipper merge research was discussed in the March and April 2018 Innovative Outlook. An FHWA analysis of FARS crash fatality data found improper merging to be the second most dangerous driving maneuver, behind only inattentive driving. The zipper merge is hypothesized to improve both roadway safety and efficiency, including in work zone areas.

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