The State of the Work Zone ITS Industry – 2018

We just enjoyed the 4th of July holiday. As we sat on the deck consuming bar-b-que and adult beverages we considered the state of the work zone ITS industry. We really have come a long way in the past year and that deserves recognition and a quick look back.

One of the most important and most overlooked recent changes is the blurring of the lines between the permanent ITS infrastructure world and the work zone ITS world. At last month’s ITS America show in Detroit, HERE demonstrated their new ability to incorporate live data feeds from work zones along with their partners including software provider GEWI and work zone ITS supplier iCone.

Waze is also incorporating real-time work zone data feeds in their traffic reporting. Both traffic data providers understand the importance of immediate and accurate work zone reporting and are working internally to make better use of our data.

This blurring is going the other direction as well, as Work Area Protection (formerly ASTI Transportation) now offers the option of including Iteris probe data in work zone travel and delay time calculations.

This blurring of the lines may be more important than we realize. Because it becomes less about us versus them for funding and more about an ITS system that works all of the time – especially in work zones. Work zones have always been an afterthought with ITS practitioners. But that is changing. They now understand that the single largest cause of nonrecurring congestion is work zones. And they are working to address that with their permanent systems.

In a recent article in Better Roads Magazine Frank Zucco of Wanco explained that work zone ITS is now much less expensive. Large, elaborate systems are still available and make sense for multi-year projects with major traffic impacts. But more and more simple systems are now being used for queue detection, trucks entering and dynamic merge applications. And, as Frank points out, those are now very dependable and inexpensive, making them a cost-effective solution for most projects.

Research now validates what we all knew intuitively. Queue detection, in particular, has shown major benefits according to the Texas Transportation Institute and AASHTO. We touched on this milestone two years ago in our post “The State of the Work Zone ITS Industry” published on 4/28/16.

And, lastly, work zone ITS helps facilitate the proliferation of automated and autonomous vehicles. Without real time reporting of work zones, AVs are left to navigate them on their own. And the AV world now understands that. We have become a part of the conversation. At the Automated Vehicle Symposium later this month in San Francisco sessions about work zones will be included for the third year in a row. See #33: “OEM/DOT Dialog on Dedicated Lanes, Work Zones and Shared Data” on July 11th. Autonomous vehicles are a big story that will only get bigger. Funding and research will flow to our industry as a result of these conversations.

As an industry, we aren’t yet to the point where our systems are used everywhere they could help. But we can finally see that light at the end of the tunnel.

Work Zone Traffic Control “Down-Under”

We just returned from a wonderful trip to Australia where we spoke to the Traffic Management Association of Australia (TMAA) about work zone ITS. Their members were all excited and focused on finding safer, more efficient ways to manage their work zones.

The program was packed full of interesting speakers and a variety of timely topics. They also gave us all just the right amount of time to discuss those topics between sessions. It was very well run.

The attendees seemed to enjoy talking to Americans and all asked what we thought of the meeting. My first answer was always the same: traffic control companies in both countries share the exact same set of problems:

1) Speeding in work zones.

2) End-of-queue crashes.

3) Hiring, training and retaining good employees.

4) A perception by the driving public that we are there to make their lives miserable.

5) Insufficient funding for maintenance and construction.

6) Changing standards and levels of enforcement from one state to the next.

7) Varying commitment and funding levels from one state to the next.

Just like ATSSA, the TMAA brings contractors, manufacturers, academia and government agencies together to discuss these problems and identify solutions. The TMAA does an especially good job of this. We look forward to learning more from them in the years to come!

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.

 

What Do Automated and Connected Vehicles Need to Know About Work Zones?

AUVS

On July 20th, Ross Sheckler of iCone made a presentation to the Autonomous Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco. The title of his presentation was “What Do Automated and Connected Vehicles Need to Know About Work Zones?” His message was very important. It was well-received by those in attendance, but the group that needs to hear this is many times larger than the 100 or so people in the room that day. So we will try to make his main points in today’s post.

Remember, most of the attendees were not work zone people, though a few of us were there that day. Most work for automotive manufacturers or component manufacturers. They produce navigation systems – some in use today and some that will guide autonomous vehicles in the future. Those cars will drive through our work zones, yet the folks who produce them know very little about temporary traffic control. So Ross began by pointing out that the map changes 1,000 times per day due to work zones. 1,000 times per day workers change the law, and 10,000 times per day warnings are posted. His point being, of course, that we must find a way to inform these systems.

Mr. Sheckler also explained that most closures are never reported. And of those that are reported, most don’t occur on the dates and times they are scheduled. He went on to say that the most dangerous closures are probably those unreported ones. He used the example of a short term utility closure on a rural road with bad line of sight.  The people doing that type of work often do not worry much about traffic control. They might place a 10 foot taper of cones and a ROAD WORK AHEAD sign, but even that is somewhat rare. Automotive systems must be able to recognize these work areas and react appropriately.

And when traffic control is reported, it only shows up in navigation apps as “roadwork”. It does not say it is a lane shift, or multiple lane closure sure to cause queuing. It does not say the entire geometry has changed by moving traffic over into the oncoming lanes separated by concrete barrier. And it does not tell you if the work is causing traffic to slow or stop. A shoulder closure is reported the same way as a full roadway closure with detour. Yet one does not affect traffic at all while the other may affect travelers’ choice of routes.

His point is that by reporting these changes as they occur it gives drivers the opportunity to avoid the area altogether. But the information must be posted as the changes occur and it must be accurate. If it is, drivers will learn to depend on it and change their routes. But if they get erroneous or inaccurate information, they will continue to drive along their intended path.

Ross finished by listing the details that are important to navigation apps, and this applies to current apps as well as future autonomous driving systems.

  1. Work zone status: scheduled versus equipment on sight and ready to work versus workers present.
  2. Map changes including lane shifts, capacity reductions of any kind, or roads closed.
  3. Queue details including slow or stopped traffic, delay times, early or late merge systems, and location of merge point.
  4. Presence of active flagging operations including location.
  5. Presence and location of attenuator trucks, especially when the attenuator is in the down or active position.

These are all details a system will require to make informed routing recommendations. And if the work does cause significant impacts, we prefer they avoid the area altogether. It is safer and more efficient for everyone involved: travelers, contractors, and for the owner/agency.

Our industry can supply this information today. So please encourage system designers to engineer with that in mind. We can all avoid a future full of expensive, time consuming, and even dangerous problems by getting the word out now.