Every year, more than 500 fatal crashes happen in U.S. work zones and more than 100 road construction workers are killed on their work sites. Speed and distraction contribute to those crashes, often because drivers don’t know they’re coming upon a construction zone and must modify their driving.
It’s no surprise that construction crews are at risk in safety zones. Half of road workers deaths between 2005 and 2010 were due to collisions with motorists within a work zone, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Last year, 1,684 crashes happened in Minnesota work zones leading to 10 deaths, the department reported.
The leading cause: driver inattention.
With the sobering construction-accident numbers in mind, researchers at the University of Minnesota are looking to what they call ‘connected corridors’ that can communicate in advance via cell phone with drivers and pedestrians about construction zones. If drivers are alerted to upcoming work areas, construction workers in those areas will be safer, says Nichole Morris, director of the HumanFIRST Lab at the university.
The name “connected corridors” comes because drivers will be digitally connected with road issues via their phones.
The need for those corridors comes as today’s roadside signs, even if they’re the digital type that seem to be up-to-date, offer little information, Morris says. As any driver knows, they often only warn motorists that they’re approaching a construction zone and must slow down and be cautious. Drivers get so used to seeing the signs that they don’t pay attention to them and behave as if all work zones are the same, Morris says.
But work zones are ever-changing. As construction continues, they can differ from day-to-day or even moment-to-moment. Construction workers may shift location, for example, or lanes can be open or closed, Morris says. She studies human-computer interactions with technology related to various aspects of transportation, including how drivers move through work zones and register signs for upcoming construction.
The app offers a way to alert drivers to upcoming construction without their need to rely on potentially outdated signs that drivers sometimes don’t register; without them having to fiddle with a cell phone, which is dangerous, against the law in some states, and a huge cause of inattention.
Last year, the researchers in the lab began testing their Workzone Alert app, which delivers messages directly to drivers in their vehicles through their smartphones or vehicle’s information and entertainment system.
Information on the app is continually updated via a Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) tag attached to a construction barrel or to sign posts in a work zone. As a driver nears the tag, the app picks up an audio message, which is read aloud it to the driver. Messages might say things like “Road goes from two lanes to one” or “workers on site in 1,000 feet.”
“We’re looking at the human side of how the technology would work,” Morris says. “‘Will this system actually result in the safety benefit we’re hoping for?’”
The first tests were completed in the spring of 2017 in a roughly 10-mile construction zone on Interstate-94 between Minneapolis and a nearby suburb. It found that the app can pick up the signal from 400 to 500 feet away in any condition, including heavy traffic and inclement weather. Even drivers going up to 70 miles an hour could receive the signal.
The app would build on other construction alert tools available.
Minnesota was one of the first states to have the 511 system, which offers continual updates about weather-related road conditions, road work, commercial vehicle restrictions, road closures, and other travel information via the phone or Internet. But the system has one big drawback: it requires drivers to punch in the number on their phones or to log-into the 511 website before traveling, Morris says.
The 511 system was originally intended for that purpose: for travelers to check road conditions on the Internet before beginning their trip. The predominance of cell phones allowed drivers to access traffic and road information during their trip, but introduced considerable distraction on drivers navigating the complex phone trees, Morris says.
“The evolution of traveler information systems onto smartphone applications has eased the cognitive demand previously imposed by phone tree systems, but has shifted the demand to drivers’ visual resources,” she says.
Of course, no one wants drivers looking at their phones and navigating apps while they’re driving. That’s why the app speaks audio about changing situations aloud. Drivers don’t have to read anything.
“The theory is that it does not increase distracted driving,” Ken Johnson with MnDOT’s Office of Traffic, Safety and Technology said last year. The lab found those who relied on audio from their phone had less mental workload. They also performed better when changing lanes and holding their speed and they remembered audio messages better than drivers who read road signs.
The lab also tested the app for driver distractions. Researchers tracked and analyzed the eye movements and responses of 100 different drivers as they navigated several simulated construction zones. They compared the message coming from the smartphone to a portable changeable message sign like the ones on the side of the road.
The researchers found that people spent more time looking away from the road to look at the portable signs than they did when the message was sent from the smartphone.
Although distracted driving is a huge reason for accidents, if a driver is distracted by their phone, the audio message will interrupt what they’re doing to warning that construction is ahead.
While it’s true that apps like Waze, which is owned by Google, can update drivers about construction and crashes on their upcoming route, those who use Waze must make those reports, and that requires drivers to manually input the information into the app, which, again, distracts drivers.
Some Minnesotans question how well such an app would work. Drivers could turn off our phones or play the radio loud enough to drown on the messages, they say.
Meanwhile, Workzone alert won’t be unveiled quite yet. MnDOT still must work out a deal with an app developer and answer questions such as how loud messages should play and how to incorporate the app into its 511 traveler information website without compromising driver safety.
While a phone app won’t take the number of accidents in construction zones to zero, it can reduce that number and keep construction workers safer.