John Hourdos, Director, MN Traffic Observatory, Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering
As the roadway transportation system of the U.S. and Minnesota has matured, roadway construction under traffic conditions has become the rule, rather than the exception. There is little construction taking place on new alignment. Instead, transportation agencies must maintain, repair, and reconstruct existing roadway facilities while allowing traffic to continue using the roadway. Sharing of right-of-way between construction and traffic creates the potential for many conflicts and can have a negative impact on safety. Nationally, in 2012, 609 fatalities out of 33,561 were located on work zones, while in Minnesota there were 4 out of 395.
The two major causal factors for single vehicle crashes in Minnesota in 2012 were Illegal/Unsafe Speed 21.6% and Driver Inattention/Distraction 14.1%. Work zones are locations especially sensitive to these two factors because in the vast majority of them the drivers are required to adjust their speed (slow down) and adjust their course due to changes in road geometry. The standard practices for traffic control in work zones are identified in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, also known as the MUTCD. However, despite significant experience with work zone traffic control, work zone crashes have continued to increase. One reason may be that the information directing the drivers to perform such adjustments is currently transmitted through static or variable signs on the road side. Such signs are visible within a range of approximately 450 feet. On the other hand, the average driver engaged in texting has its eyes averted from the road for a continues 5 seconds, which at 55mph is equal of crossing a football field (360 feet) blindfolded. Given that at any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulate electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010, the danger of failing to notice, or noticing too late the work zone warning signs when relying only on vision is clearly high. It will continue to rise as the causes for distraction inside a vehicle multiply (texting, emailing, using touch based navigation systems, etc.)
This project is one of three components of a work zone safety research proposal to investigate the effectiveness of using in-vehicle messages to improve drivers' understanding of the work zone and reduce risky behavior. The first effort, led by human factors experts, was to identify the problems and assess driver distraction in work zones using crash data analyses and by collecting objective driver behavior data. Based on this understanding, dynamic in-vehicle messages are being defined to improve drivers' understanding of the work zone. The second effort, is examining an inexpensive new technology based on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) tags that can be deployed in or ahead of work zones. These can trigger spoken and contextual messages in existing smartphones located in vehicles passing by the tag.