Distracted Driving and Work Zones

We all know that distracted driving is resulting in increased fatalities on our roadways. The National Safety Council reported a 6% increase in fatalities in 2016. According to the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse, overall roadways fatalities increased 13% from 2013 to 2016. And during that same period, work zone fatalities increased 28%!

We enjoyed a period of dramatic decline in these numbers in the early 2000’s and then in 2013 they suddenly began to climb again. A small part of that change was due to improving economic activity and the increase in vehicle miles traveled that came as a result. But far more is due to other factors and distracted driving certainly tops the list.

The National Safety Council reports that 47% of drivers feel comfortable texting while they are driving. But we know that, in fact, texting while driving often increases reaction times more than driving under the influence.

But the problem is bigger than just that. In a recent article by Dr. Carl Marci, a neuroscientist writing in the January 4th issue of Perspectives magazine (http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2018/perspectives-driving-while-distracted-the-challenges-of-measuring-behavior-in-complex-environments.html), he said that our cars may be contributing to the distracted driving problem as well! This question occurred to him driving home one night so he ran a test using standard bio-metric equipment on a short drive on an unfamiliar road in Boston. The results showed the driver looked at his or her phone 60 times during a ten minute trip! A study by Zendrive reinforces these findings. They found that drivers use their phones for 88% of their trips.

Dr. Marci explains this by examining the way we use our phones outside of our vehicles. Any time we are bored, we look at our phone. Sitting at home in front of the TV, standing on a street corner waiting for a bus, or sitting in slow a meeting at work – we all check our phones when we get bored. And then we are often rewarded for doing so with a response from others. Email and social media have changed the way we act in very profound and far-reaching ways. And that can’t be turned off when we get behind the wheel.

Furthermore, our cars are becoming very comfortable. They resemble our living rooms more every day. Elaborate electronics help guide us to our destination, provide entertainment, and interface with our phones calling and communications applications.

We do use our cars electronics and phones for legitimate reasons while driving. They give us directions to our destination. They warn us of traffic problems along our planned route. They tell us of weather changes that may be important. So our phones & automotive electronics can help us get where we are going more safely. But once we use these for legitimate reasons, we can’t put them down. Or our drive becomes boring or our phone beeps to announce a new text, and we can’t seem to wait until we stop to check those messages.

So, back to work zones. A 28% increase in work zone fatalities cannot be ignored. Distracted driving is a growing and potentially catastrophic trend for work zones. Work zone ITS has always helped to reduce crashes. But this trend in distracted driving makes the use of work zone ITS all the more important. End of queue systems, dynamic merge systems, and variable speed limit systems can all get drivers attention, improve their work zone awareness, and help mitigate the effects of distracted driving. Let’s get ahead of this trend now before it gets any worse.

The Importance of Crash Modification Factors to Work Zone ITS

A webinar was held December 5th on work zone crash data collection and analysis. It was organized by Wayne State University and included speakers from the University of Missouri and Michigan State University. A recording of the webinar will be made available soon.

Several very good resources were made available as the webinar began including “A Guide for Work Zone Crash Data Collection, Reporting, and Analysis” which was produced for the FHWA by the Wayne State University College of Engineering. This guide can be found at:  https://www.workzonesafety.org/files/documents/training/fhwa_wz_grant/wsu_wz_data_collection_guide.pdf

As a work zone ITS practitioner, I have deployed many systems over the years but have very little data to prove the effectiveness of those deployments. The problem has always been establishing a base line of the probable number of crashes given the traffic control, project duration, traffic volumes, etc. Only with that base line can we compare our actual crash numbers to determine whether the system was cost-effective.

The crash data guide states the problem very succinctly, “In order to perform an effective work zone safety analysis, the appropriate work zone crash data needs to be available. The availability of this data is only as good as what is collected on the state crash report form.”

The webinar pointed to several states’ best practices in this regard. At a minimum, states are required to include a checkbox on their form to indicate if the crash was work zone related. But states including Connecticut, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Virginia collect much more. They go into detail about the location of the crash within the work zone, and what types of traffic control and construction activity was in place at the time of that crash.

That data will help them develop Crash Modification Factors (CFMs) for different traffic control treatments. In time we hope to see CFMs for queue warning systems, dynamic merge systems, variable speed limit systems, and much more. Those CFMs could be specific to high volume multi-lane facilities, rural four lane highways, etc.

Once CFMs are developed, the rest of the process is fairly simple. Compare the CFM associated with your proposed system to the traffic volumes where that system will be used, and you will know immediately whether the use of that system is justified. The use of these systems is already taking off, but there is still some guess work involved in the decision to use or not use work zone ITS. By developing CFMs we could speed that process along and make it more scientific.

Combining Queue Warning with Dynamic Late Merge

In our last post we talked about the ATSSA “Tuesday Topics” webinar held June 27th. Joe Jeffrey began the webinar with a discussion of work zone ITS basics. Chris Brookes of Michigan DOT shared some of his lessons learned. The final speaker that day was Ross Sheckler of iCone there to talk about coming trends in work zone ITS. Ross declared that the next big thing will be queue warning combined with dynamic late merge.

Mr. Sheckler began by looking at the state of our industry. He said that nationally there are nearly 1,000 deployments per year now. Costs of these systems are dramatically lower than they once were. And the economy and simplicity of these systems have not affected their flexibility. In fact, because applications vary, flexibility always has been and always will be an important feature of work zone ITS.

And for that reason it is very easy to add features, including dynamic late merge. As Ross pointed out, queue warning systems have their limitations. When volumes increase and queue lengths extend beyond the limits of a queue warning system additional steps should be taken. By instructing drivers to stay in their lanes and take turns at the merge point, it reduces the overall queue length, makes the best use of limited capacity, reduces road rage, and sometimes can even improve throughout.

In his drawings of typical system configurations he listed 4 sensors and 1 portable changeable message sign (PCMS) for queue warning. For queue warning with dynamic late merge he added a second PCMS at the merge point to tell drivers to take turns and a fifth sensor to narrow the gap between sensors midway through the affected area. So, in total, just 1 more sensor and 1 more sign. This is a minimal added cost and significantly increases the capabilities of the system.

The message here is that we can often solve multiple problems with one system. It just takes a slightly different logic in the controlling software. In this case you can solve problems with end of queue crashes and conflicts at the merge point with one inexpensive, easy to use system. So please remember this the next time you specify a work zone ITS system. Consider all of the challenges you face on that project, and think about ways work zone ITS may mitigate one, two or perhaps even many of them.

This webinar covered a lot of ground in a very short time.  It was recorded and can be viewed by ATSSA members anytime at: http://www.atssa.com/TuesdayTopics/Recorded. Or watch for possible future webinars on this same topic.