In the 1980s TV show Hill Street Blues, every episode would have police Sergeant Phil Esterhaus tell his squad, “Hey, let’s be careful out there.” With construction beginning to ramp up at a positive rate, workers are returning and so are the hazards of construction. This is especially true along the highways where traffic is increasing as businesses reopen and people leave their stay-at-home restrictions.

A recent survey by AGC Associated General Contractors of America) found that two-thirds of the 200-plus respondents reported at least one crash in the past year involving a moving vehicle at highway work zones, and 33% reported five or more crashes. AGC and HCSS, a software company specializing in heavy construction applications, conducted the survey. Another finding was that, as industry employment increases, more people are working in highway work zones that are typically close to moving traffic and it is important to remember that “any time your job site is just a few feet away from fast moving traffic, danger is never far away.”

Construction employment expanded in most parts of the country between April and May as coronavirus lockdowns began to ease, according to an analysis of federal employment data the association conducted. Many of those workers will be improving highways and bridges in work zones along busy highways this summer.

The AGC/HCSS survey found that 17% of work zone crashes resulted in injury to construction workers while drivers and passengers were injured in 44% of those crashes. Drivers and passengers are more likely to be killed in work zone crashes as well. Workers were killed in five percent of work zone crashes while drivers or passengers were killed in 15 percent of those crashes.

The only good news coming out of the survey is that coronavirus-related reductions in driving appear to have improved work zone safety. Some 58% of respondents said changes in highway traffic levels since the coronavirus made work zones safer. With traffic coming back to 90% of pre-coronavirus levels, those safety improvements are likely to change.

Association officials called for new measures to protect motorists and workers at highway construction sites. They noted that 24% of survey respondents say a greater police presence at work zones will improve safety, 18% say stricter laws against cell phone usage and distracted driving would help, and 17% would like to see greater use of devices like Jersey barriers to protect workers.

AGC and HCSS officials said the easiest way to improve work zone safety is to get motorists to slow down and pay attention. They added that motorists should be careful navigating the narrower lanes and sudden lane shifts that are common in work zones. And they urged motorists to obey posted speed limits and keep their eyes on the road and off their phones.

And while cell phones can be distracting, other technology can be lifesaving. As an example, Trimble is enhancing its routing, scheduling, visualization, and navigation platform to detect locations of work zone traffic queues throughout the U.S. to offer an advanced slowdown alert service to hundreds of thousands of professional drivers using their in-cab truck navigation software. The alert service proactively notifies commercial drivers to slow down if there is a drop in road speed ahead to reduce back-of-queue accidents, particularly in work zone areas. The development is based on research by, and in collaboration with, Purdue University and its Joint Transportation Research Program (JTRP).

Work zone slowdowns can result in traffic buildups that cause sudden decelerations from 65 mph to less than 10 mph over short sections of highway. This creates a safety risk for commercial trucks, which require up to 50% more stopping distance than cars and passenger vehicles. According to the latest National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse statistics, 18,000 total crashes in U.S. work zones involved trucks. Rear-end crashes are the most common type of work zone crash and most fatal crashes occurred on roads with speed limits greater than 50 mph. In the past five years, these crashes have caused more than 4,400 people to lose their lives and 200,000 people to be injured, according to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation Federal Highway Administration Office of Safety.

Joint Transportation Research Program at Purdue University research shows that early warning of interstate queues in a timely and non-distracting manner to commercial vehicles will provide an opportunity to reduce rear end crashes involving trucks. As a result of this collaboration, Trimble’s slowdown alert service will interpret planned routes throughout the U.S, against real-time traffic incidents, such as roadwork and accidents, and slowdown patterns to better understand congestion ahead. The service will deliver visual and audible in-cab slowdown alerts to drivers using Trimble’s commercial navigation and driver trip planning apps or through telematics and electronic logging devices (ELD). The slowdown alert service is expected to be available at the end of the second quarter 2020.

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