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Reducing Speed in Work Zones

Research and advances in technology will lead to improved safety

Speed is a top concern for those involved in road constructionSpeed is a top concern for those involved with a road construction. In fact, speed (driving too fast for conditions) is a factor in many work zone crashes.

“We need people to be focused 100 percent on the task of driving, but that’s not always the case,” said Lt. James Rentz with Oregon State Police. “Our top concerns in a work zone are people driving too fast for conditions and distracted drivers.”

“If we could just get people to obey the posted speed signs, things would improve tremendously,” said ODOT Traffic Control Plans Standards Engineer Don Wence.

“Reducing speed in a work zone makes a huge difference,” said Kerry Kuenzi with K & E Excavating, an Oregon based construction contractor.

In this third article in our series about taking a fresh look at work zone safety, we’ll examine some of the strategies and devices Oregon is using to reduce speeds through work zones.

It all starts with research

Over the last several years, a variety of research projects were conducted in Oregon examining different aspects of work zone safety including speed reduction. In 2012, ODOT and our research partners investigated the impact of several traffic control measures including speed reduction, radar speed feedback reader boards, portable traffic management systems and different types of law enforcement efforts. In 2013, research teams identified the advantages of various traffic control measures.

The findings from these research projects were then used to make changes to ODOT traffic control plans including:

  • Instructions to traffic control plan designers to slow traffic in work areas when applicable.
  • Updates to the Traffic Control Design Manual.
  • New standard drawing TM 880 (see picture).
  • Changes to specifications such as speed reduction orders, roller mounted portable message board, radar speed feedback reader boards, additional advisory speed signs, temporary transverse rumble strips and more.

“We’ve changed what a construction zone looks like,” said ODOT Director Matt Garrett.

“Minimizing speeds within our work zones, specifically speed adjacent to interstate paving operations, has become a high priority for ODOT and our contractors,” said Bob Townsend, assistant project manager with ODOT’s office in The Dalles. “Research projects performed on recent ODOT contracts have helped in determining methods that can assist in reducing speeds while maintaining driver expectations on the freeway.”

Devices and strategies in use this summer

Speed is a top concern for those involved with road constructionMany of these speed reduction strategies and devices are in use in Oregon work zones this summer.

Radar speed feedback reader boards are portable signs that tell drivers what their current speed is. They are used in the approach to the work zone to inform drivers of their speed and encourage them to slow down if they are exceeding posted speeds.

“This is all about work zone safety,” said Ted Miller, Portland/Metro (Region 1) maintenance and operations manager. These types of devices are being piloted for maintenance work zones.

The radar signs are familiar sights along neighborhood streets and have been shown effective in slowing traffic down. But this pilot project will be the first time ODOT has used the signs in maintenance work zones on busier, faster highways on maintenance projects.

Miller said ODOT will compare the traffic data collected when the sign is off with data collected when the sign is on. If the numbers show traffic slows down when the sign is on the pilot project might be expanded. Research by ODOT and other transportation organizations has consistently shown radar speed signs to be an effective tool for reducing traffic speeds. Our pilot project will attempt to replicate these results in maintenance work zones, as well as train our staff on their safe use.

“If we see a significant speed drop, we’ll know we’re getting somewhere,” Miller said. “This might be a really useful tool to help reduce the number of crashes in work zones.”

On a project in north central Oregon, the I-84: Arlington-Tower Rd. Project ODOT and its contractor, Kerr Construction, are incorporating the new standard drawing and portable message boards to reduce speeds and provide a safer work zone.

“A 50 mph speed reduction will be in effect during paving operations,” Townsend said. “In conjunction with the 50 mph enforceable speed zone, construction speed signs of 35 mph will be used within the work zone to further reduce speeds. These speed signs will be augmented by two radar speed feedback reader boards that will display motorists’ speed.

“To advise motorists of the actual paving operation, portable message boards will be mounted on two rollers behind the pavers. They will provide messages that include ‘Workers in Road’ and ‘Slow for Workers,’ which are more direct than our general guidance messages.”

We’ll continue to look for opportunities to improve

An article in the March/April edition of the Federal Highway Administration’s Public Roads magazine summarizes tactics from several states. “Creating Smarter Work Zones” by Tracy Scriba and Jennifer Atkinson examines solutions for managing speed and reducing exposure.

Nationally, transportation organizations are studying high-tech and low-tech tools for improving work zone safety. For example, Bob Pappe, ODOT’s Traffic Roadway Engineer is a member of the National Cooperative Highway Research Program’s panel on Active and Passive Speed Management Methods in Work Zones. Pappe and the panel are researching traffic calming, enforcement, public outreach and work zone management strategies. It is an honor to have someone from Oregon participating in this panel.

As we continue to look for the best solutions to keep workers and travelers safe, research, implementation and evaluation of work zone management strategies are ongoing.

This is the third in our series of articles on taking a fresh look at work zone safety.

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