Road Management & Engineering Journal
Road Management & Engineering Journal
Copyright © 1999 by TranSafety, Inc.
April 1999
TranSafety, Inc.
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AASHTO Issues New Report on Accidents in Work Zones
Originally published in the November 1987 TranSafety Reporter

(This article on work zone safety is reproduced from the November 1987 (Volume V, No. 11) issue of the TranSafety Reporter, published and edited by Roy W. Anderson, P.E. To find legal summaries of cases related to highway work zones, please check on-line editions of "Road Injury Prevention and Litigation Journal" at this web site.)

In recent years there has been a substantial increase in reconstruction and rehabilitation of the nation's highways. As the highways age, the need for rebuilding and maintenance increases. Most of this work has been accomplished during daylight, while traffic is conducted through the work site. Thus, work zones have not only grown in number across the country, but the risk of accidents has been aggravated by the heavy traffic volume passing through work zones. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatal Accident Reporting System (FARS), fatalities in work zones have substantially increased. In 1982, 490 persons were killed in work zone accidents, while in 1985, 680 lost their lives.

In an attempt to address the serious problem work zone accidents have become, and to learn more about these accidents, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Official's (AASHTO's) Committee on Highway Traffic Safety, along with the Public Affairs Task Force on Work Zone Safety, collected state work zone accident data. The goal was to analyze the scope of the work zone problem in order to suggest ways to reduce the dangers work zones present. The Committee received usable data from 38 states.

The findings of this data collection were published in July, 1987 as "Summary Report on Work Zone Accidents" by the Standing Committee on Highway Traffic Safety of AASHTO.

Other than the fatal accidents reported in FARS, the Committee found that there was no single source of work zone accident data for all accident types. If anything, this report points out the need for a uniform and reliable source for accident data so that solutions can be suggested for future work zone safety problems. Unfortunately, the data received were insufficient for useful analysis in the area of work zone worker accidents, and AASHTO was unable to distinguish among construction, maintenance, or utility work zones for purposes of clarifying the problem.

Many states commented that a study of work zone accidents would be enhanced by the use of "exposure" data along with accident data, but most could not provide such information.

The analysis of the data was divided into eight topics:

  1. changes from 1984 to 1985;
  2. comparisons of urban and rural work zone accidents;
  3. interstate versus other primary highway work zone accidents;
  4. accident severity;
  5. collision type;
  6. day and night accidents;
  7. truck involvement; and
  8. national estimates of work zone accidents.

Accidents were categorized as fatal, injury producing, and property damage only. The study found that in 1985 the total economic cost of work zone accidents was about $800 million, which corroborates an earlier FHWA study.

Work zone accidents are more frequent on interstate highways than on other primary highways. Fatal collisions in work zones are primarily a rural problem on interstates and other primary highways; however, the vast majority of injury and property damage accidents occur in urban work zones.

When work zone accidents are compared to all accidents, the study found that work zone accidents are more severe and result in more fatalities per accident, on the average. The study also reports that fixed-object collisions are more frequent and severe when compared with vehicle-to-vehicle accidents in work zones. Although 70 percent of all work zone accidents occur in the daylight, 50 percent of the fixed-object accidents take place at night, and 50 percent of the fatalities occur at night.

In its overall recommendations, the Committee suggests that improving work zone safety should receive priority attention in each state's highway agency; and that guidance for motorists encountering and maneuvering through work zones needs much improvement, especially at night. The Committee also recommends that more serious consideration be given to the safety of workers and pedestrians in work zones. In general, the Committee found that more care must be given to designing work zones in anticipation of the normal confusion and problems associated with reduced highway capacity and disrupted flow of traffic.

In its most far-reaching recommendation, the Committee suggested that states initiate more precise and stringent procedures for monitoring work zone accidents. It is only with accurate and complete reporting that appropriate countermeasures can be adopted to make work zones safer. Improved monitoring and data collection can lead to further research into work zone safety, especially in regard to worker safety and exposure to accidents in work zones.

Copyright © 1999 by TranSafety, Inc.

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