Jan 16, 2004

Quality of life

ATSSA joins partnership to help upgrade work-zone protection

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

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

*  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

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

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"

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

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

Wentz is executive director of ATSSA, Fredericksburg, Va.