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Pennsylvania Study Looks at Work Zone Crashes, Risk Factors

A recent study by Carnegie Mellon University looked at the effects of traffic, weather and other factors impacting the safety of highway work zones and increased accident risks in these areas.

Work area ahead sign.
Highway work zones on heavily traveled roads can lead to an increase in traffic accidents, particularly when those work zones are lengthy.

New research from the Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), found that work zones more than 1.8 miles long could increase crash risks; and that road work scheduled for night hours do not increase crash risks.

“So far, we cannot say what mitigation efforts can lead to the safest work zones; this will be our next step. But this provides insights on under what conditions a work zone can lead to more crashes, and when a work zone does not,” said Sean Qian, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Mobility Data Analytics Center.

The research reviewed three years of data from 5,006 work zones in Pennsylvania from 2015 to 2017, alongside weather conditions, traffic counts, traffic speeds and other data.

The study is careful to note that work zones do not necessarily cause traffic accidents, though certain conditions — in combination with these areas — can increase the level of risk. Heavily traveled roads and longer work zones leading to increased crash risks could be the result of the simple math. What's more, heavy vehicle activity means the road may require more maintenance, said researchers.

“For instance, it could be that high traffic volumes lead to more retrofit projects and more crashes, in this case, crashes may not be caused by work zones, but it does show that work zone presence and crashes are related,” said Qian.

If lengthy work zones on heavily traveled roads have shown increased accident risk during day hours, transportation officials may want to consider steps to make these work zones safer as a result, say researchers.

Other approaches at making highway work zones safer have come from technology providers. One.Network has developed the Work Zone Data Exchange (WZDx) as a way to standardize and share work zone data across multiple parties. The WZDx brings work zone data from multiple sources and agencies, and then makes the data available as a single data feed, said Simon Topp, chief commercial officer for One.Network.

“We’ll effectively gather up that data. For some agencies, it may be across multiple systems,” Topp told Government Technology in an interview earlier this year. “We then make it our job to bring that data together, into a single database.”

One.Network then enriches the data to make it a standardized WZDx feed, which is then made available to third parties.

Making roadway data more easily available to third parties — or even connected vehicles — has the potential of making roads safer in work areas. The Pennsylvania study did directly address the issue of what happens when this information is sent to drivers.

“Depending on what and how information is provided to drivers and how the information is designed, it is hard to predict the impact without sufficient data,” said Qian. “The contribution of this paper is, however, to show that the causal relation can be inferred, enabled by a large scale pool of multiyear data from various sources.”

Increasing work zone safety will likely become a higher-level concern as states and regions begin efforts to improve transportation infrastructure as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which will unleash significant amounts of new funding to help upgrade roads and bridges in the next five years.

“The pandemic may have changed the trend, but I anticipate an increasing number of work zones due to aging infrastructure,” said Qian. “And yes, more to come in the next decade of repairing our highway infrastructure. Safety is No. 1 priority when retrofitting our infrastructure systems.”

“Work zone is obviously a huge topic,” echoed Topp. “Because there’s a lot of it. And with the infrastructure bill there’s going to be a whole lot more.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.