Quality of life

April 2, 2018
ATSSA joins partnership to help upgrade work-zone protection

About the author: Wentz is executive director of ATSSA, Fredericksburg, Va.

Unflinching attention to safety and sure-handed traffic control plans: these were two quality principles that landed the New Jersey Department of Transportation, designer Parsons-Brinckerhoff and J.H. Reid General Contractor the highest honor bestowed by the National Partnership for Highway Quality (NPHQ) in 2003. 

Here was the challenge and result, according to state Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere: "As one of only two weight-restricted bridges on the entire New Jersey highway system, the 80-year-old Rte. 9 Nacote Creek Bridge was long overdue to be replaced. The new fixed-span structure not only alleviates the congestion previously experienced with the old structurally deficient drawbridge, but also provides a safer passage for motorists and watercraft with its wider lanes and shoulders and 25 ft of clearance over the creek."

From early planning stages to completion several weeks ahead of schedule, safety framed the Atlantic County project. Safety "tool box" meetings were held weekly to hammer out work-zone safety issues and plan for the week. Attendance sheets were kept for these meetings; they were that important. Unscheduled jobsite safety inspections were a practice.

The earliest design plans called for closure of Rte. 9 in the vicinity of construction, with a detour route established well in advance and clearly marked. A "Local Traffic Only" detour plan served those who lived and worked near the bridge. As a tribute to traffic management and an outreach campaign that earned public support, no complaints were received or incidents reported as a result of either detour. 

From start to finish, the bridge construction embodied the fact that safety informs every step of quality-managed highway projects. Bob Templeton, P.E., is the executive director of the NPHQ, a groundbreaking coalition of federal and state highway officials and leading roadway construction industry groups. He pointed out, "Quality processes for safety ranked substantially in NPHQ's decision to recognize the New Jersey team with NPHQ's 2003 National Achievement Award. The safety of the public and road workers was also a consistent theme through the other projects nominated for NPHQ's 2003 awards program: Michigan, Texas, Maryland, Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon."     

Trying to hold down the rise

The American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) partners with NPHQ because it has a powerful stake in the results delivered by quality-driven highway projects. It's gratifying to see efforts under way across the nation to raise the bar on roadway construction and traffic safety. But there's still a great deal of road work ahead. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation's 2002 statistics on highway fatalities show them at the highest level since 1990: 42,815 deaths last year, up 1.5% from 2001. According to the U.S. DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the death toll in highway work zones for 2002 reached 1,181--1,029 of whom were drivers and their passengers.

As both traffic volumes and the number of work zones have climbed, so have work-zone fatalities. Recent Federal Highway Administration estimates show that vehicle miles traveled in 2002 increased to 2.83 trillion, up from 2.78 trillion in 2001. The need for integration of roadway safety solutions at every stage of roadway project management has never been more compelling.

There are, fortunately, some bright spots in this picture: Although overall fatalities have increased, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled remained at 1.51; and the number of injured dropped from 3.03 million in 2001 to 2.92 million in 2002.

How can we further reinforce the safety landscape? How do ATSSA and its NPHQ colleagues elevate safety at every stage of a roadway project? We encourage state roadway quality partnerships; advocate for a greater emphasis on quality management in all highway construction projects; and stay committed to the safety of roadway workers and the motoring public. We also recognize and share the best practices of outstanding performers.

Elevating safety and quality

A worthy way to illustrate the safety considerations of first-class highway projects is to peer inside the safety programs of some of the state teams that captured NPHQ awards last fall. I'll touch on those of Arizona, Georgia and Oregon.

In the U.S. 93-Boulders Reconstruction Project, the task for the Arizona Department of Transportation and its partners was to widen from two to four lanes 7.5 miles of narrow, winding highway through rugged desert terrain, while improving safety features. The team kicked off the effort with a professionally facilitated partnering workshop, and the signing of a partnering agreement set the stage with specific goals, including safety goals. Forty-seven participants representing 15 different stakeholder groups signed the partnering charter. Some examples of the safety goals were:

* No project-related accidents on the part of the public or staff;

*  Weekly "tool box" safety meetings attended by all;

*  Daily "take-five" meetings for inspectors;

*  Effective use of Department of Public Safety and traffic controls at leading edge of work zone and through project;

*  Use of all required personal protective equipment;

*  Keeping an ongoing, open safety dialog; and

* Maintaining constant vigilance to keep signs up in windy conditions.

Monthly evaluations of success in realizing the goals resulted in an average rating of 3.34 on a 4-point scale for safety over the year-and-a-half construction period. There were no major accidents caused by construction zone restrictions or closures and the number of severe highway accidents has decreased significantly since completion.

The Georgia Department of Transportation shut down a crucial section of interstate to resurface a 7.9-mile portion of I-285 around Atlanta for a project that could have been done with single- and double-lane closures. Why? Safety ranked first; convenience to the public second; and timely completion third. The Georgia team determined that so much equipment and manpower were involved that closing all the lanes would provide the safest working situation for employees, contractors and motorists. Closing all lanes of the interstate in one direction for 12 weekends would avoid disruptions for 125,000 vehicles per day on weekdays for two years. 

Traffic was detoured to other interstates, keeping drivers up to date with a massive public information campaign so they wouldn't be caught in gridlock. Sixteen portable changeable message signs (CMS) were included in the contract and placed at strategic locations, working in concert with Georgia DOT's network of permanent CMSs.  

The result: Minimal traffic delays and only one minor accident attributed to construction. It speaks volumes that although the team had until 5 a.m. on Monday each week to open the road, it was actually opened every weekend by 9 p.m. on Sunday with the exception of one. That weekend it opened at midnight.

When additional lights, crosswalk signals, bike lanes, emergency shoulders and curbs were included as part of Oregon's 99W to Main Street project in Newberg, Ore., pedestrian safety improved and accidents plummeted. This stretch is one of the busiest thoroughfares in the state, and one Newberg police officer commented that pedestrians were "taking their lives in their hands" trying to cross Oregon 99W before its widening, sidewalk additions, new turn lanes and construction of a raised median. The team installed or replaced eight traffic signals, upgraded three and interconnected and synchronized all traffic signals in the city, using intelligent transportation systems (ITS) signal progression technology.

The stated goal of the Oregon Department of Transportation was to improve the safety and efficiency of the roadway, and to that end they used quality processes centered on safety. The result: A more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly highway through Newberg and significantly improved traffic flow.

Always something different

Each of the NPHQ award winners shared a commitment to the quality-safety equation. Each differed in implementation because there's no one safety formula in construction. Solutions must be context-sensitive; every work zone is different. Training and planning should adapt accordingly and be based on field analysis. A good plan asks not only "are safety devices in the traffic control plan?" but also "is the plan sufficient for the conditions of the project?" Traffic control managers evaluate and address the differences in work zones from one location to another and devise training programs accordingly. 

They also must consider the full range of drivers and demographics: older drivers, inexperienced ones with limited exposure to work zones, cautious drivers, truckers, motorcyclists and others. Dr. Gene Hawkins, who heads the Operations and Design Division at the Texas Transportation Institute, said, "The selection of traffic control devices on a given project needs to consider different user populations, each of which may have a different set of demands."

Hawkins continued, "Work zones must get smarter, as should communications with road users about the effects of work zones (on driving conditions). The development of overarching traffic management plans for control inside, outside, around and in the corridor deserves more attention and earlier review in project plans. Fortunately, these areas, along with performance measures and technology innovations, are benefiting from an increasing number of research programs in safety and operations."

Two snapshots

The NPHQ recently featured two--from Minnesota and Maryland--in its monthly compilation of new highway quality developments.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation recently completed two work-zone signage studies. One assessed the interpretations of signs that trigger driver behaviors in work zones, especially where vehicles merge into one lane from two. The goal was to determine the best signage and traffic-control strategies to help drivers make intelligent merge choices in work zones and avoid abrupt lane changes and sudden stops.

The state also conducted a field study to assess a new Dynamic Late Merge System to improve merging at lane closures. This "zipper" system is fully automated and uses remote traffic microwave sensors and a Doppler radar to give instructions to drivers via changeable message signs on when to merge and how to merge according to the current state of traffic.

In a related development, the Maryland State Highway Administration also has piloted its Dynamic Late Lane Merge System, a gradual lane merging system using ITS technology to better manage and control messages to ease motorists into a merge without backups caused by dangerous lane changes and sudden stops. Portable message signs equipped with sensors to detect traffic volume on the approach to a lane closure for a work zone are spaced at intervals of 1 mile, 1,500 ft, 500 ft and at the merge point. The first three messages advise motorists to remain in normal travel lanes. The last message says to alternate moving into the open lane, using the "zipper" method.

Across the nation similar efforts are under way to improve all aspects of highway safety at many agencies.

Stuck in rehab

The fact is, though, that balancing affordability and performance are continual juggling acts in the highway safety realm. No one would argue that crash cushions, brighter signs, ITS, gating devices, water-filled barriers, wider edge lines, intrusion devices and other safety advances are good and desirable. Some, however, say they are costly in an era when funding is limited. We at ATSSA feel that not using technologies that prevent injury and loss of life has its own economic cost. When over 42,000 people a year lose their lives on the road and about 3 million are injured in motor vehicle crashes, the cost to taxpayers is nearly $21 billion. Societal costs exceed $230 billion.

These facts underscore ATSSA's support of robust federal funding for a highway program that includes a core roadway safety program targeting roadway hazards and improving infrastructure. According to the FHWA, roadway conditions contribute to one-third of all motor vehicle fatalities. High-risk areas that would benefit from a core roadway safety program are run-off-the-road crashes, intersections, pedestrian and bicycle traffic, older drivers, speed management, work zones, safety management systems, emergency management and roadway safety research.

Given the competing demands for funding in the nation's roadway program, stemming loss of life on America's roadways requires fiscal and professional commitment. Reaching the state of the art in roadway construction safety practice takes a sustained resolve for safety in terms of planning, process, training, teamwork, innovation, performance, operation and maintenance. 

As Hawkins pointed out, "We've long since gotten the farmer out of the mud. A couple of generations ago, that was the point of roads. This generation is maintaining the system that's in place. The size of the system remains essentially static at this point; although travel has increased dramatically in the last 20 years, lane capacity has not kept up. Years ago, the premise was build, build, build. Now we're building very few new roads. Instead, we're primarily rebuilding the roads that are out there now, rehabilitating so the pavement has additional years of life."

Enter the quality imperative. Fortunately, under the umbrella of the NPHQ, ATSSA and its 1,800 private- and public-sector members are teamed with 12 world-class organizations that advocate quality practices to improve operations and safety for highway users. NPHQ is composed of FHWA, the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials, the American Concrete Pavement Association, the American Council of Engineering Cos., the American Public Works Association, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, ATSSA, the Asphalt Institute, the Associated General Contractors of America, the Foundation for Pavement Preservation, the National Asphalt Pavement Association, the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies and the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association.

These organizations bring a wealth of energy, vision and expertise to the table and are leading the highway quality community into a new era of performance and safety. All understand the business and opportunity riding on the roads and the benefits riding on quality-managed improvements to our roadway system.

About the Author

Roger Wentz

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