Road Management & Engineering Journal
Road Management & Engineering Journal
Copyright © 1999 by TranSafety, Inc.
May 1999
TranSafety, Inc.
(360) 683-6276
Fax: (360) 335-6402

Improving Work Zone Standards
by Roy W. Anderson, P.E.

Originally published in the November 1989 TranSafety Reporter

(This article on work zone safety is reproduced from the November 1989 (Volume VII, 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.)

One of the major weaknesses in the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), Part VI--Work Zones--is a substantial lack of specific and objective criteria that can be easily understood, applied, and enforced by those persons responsible for work zone safety. The MUTCD is written primarily for the application by engineers trained in traffic engineering. Section 1A-4 provides that "the decision to use a particular device at a particular location should be made on the basis of an engineering study of the location. Thus, while this Manual provides standards for design and application of traffic control devices, the Manual is not a substitute for engineering judgment." This same section also provides that:

Qualified Engineers are needed to exercise the engineering judgment inherent in the selection of traffic control devices, just as they are needed to locate and design the roads and streets which the devices complement. Jurisdictions with responsibility for traffic control, that do not have qualified engineers on their staffs, should seek assistance from State highway department, their county, a nearby large city, or a traffic consultant.

The provisions for traffic safety as contained in the MUTCD go far beyond merely the application of traffic control devices. For example, the requirements under the "Fundamental Principles" for roadside safety require information not contained in the MUTCD. In fact, roadside safety and other safety areas require not only familiarity with the federal, state, and American Association of State Highway and Traffic Officials (AASHTO) standards and guidelines, but more importantly, require continuing awareness of technical research results. Thus, to provide such safety requires knowledge and training not normally expected of field engineers, and contractors, maintenance crews, and utility company personnel. The MUTCD is simply not written for application by the vast majority of persons who are in fact charged with the implementation of its provisions, particularly in the case of work zone safety. Even an experienced traffic engineer with operating field experience is not given the specifics required to achieve "uniform" and safe results when using Part VI of the MUTCD. There is far too great a dependence on "engineering judgement."

The problems with the MUTCD are far reaching and will not be quickly resolved. Part VI is under revision by the Federal Highway Administration and probably will not be published for another year or so. How good the revision will be remains to be seen. If the revision fails to adequately address the level of competence of the persons who must apply the MUTCD, then it will not provide the information and guidance that is required to provide for safety. Clearly, there is a different degree of guidance necessary for the traffic engineer who designs a traffic control plan, than for a field inspector who must enforce its provisions and make changes, or for the contractor's foreman who may not have graduated from high school.

In my experience qualified engineers, trained in traffic and safety, have little to do with the application of the MUTCD, nor do they have any role in the design and management of work zones. I would say that traffic control devices are most likely to be applied by lay persons, the people for whom the Manual must be written. That means that the language must be specific and direct. It means that there must be numerous illustrative examples (either in the standard or in a handbook). The standards and criteria should be formulated from the perspective of enforceability. Equally important, the procedures must be able to be taught to the workers who must make the application--whether it's the design of a traffic control plan by an engineer, or a decision by the contractor's excavation foreman about safely parking the equipment at night.

Concerning training, the MUTCD Part VI, Section 6A-6 provides:

Each person whose actions affect maintenance, construction, utility, and incident management zone safety--from the upper-level management personnel through field personnel--should receive training appropriate to the job decisions each individual is required to make. Only those individuals who are qualified by means of adequate training in safe traffic control practices and have a basic understanding of the principles established by applicable standards and regulations, including those of the MUTCD, should supervise the selection, placement, and maintenance of traffic control devices in work and incident management areas.

Unfortunately, the MUTCD does not specify what is "appropriate" or "adequate," nor does it define "basic understanding." This provision is, therefore, not readily enforceable. This is one of the most important sections in the MUTCD yet it is routinely violated. It needs specificity and enforcement. There should be a requirement that responsible individuals, including engineers, be certified through a process that should be specific and include both minimum training and levels of actual experience. Only when this requirement is met will we see significant improvements in work zone safety.

There is now, and has been for more than two decades, sufficient information available to make substantial improvements in work zone safety. The highway profession and industry have yet to fully implement and enforce what we know. I continue to see management failures in lawsuits brought by plaintiff's injured in work zones. The records of such lawsuits reveal that even the highway departments of large states and the personnel of large road building contractors continue to violate the most basic of safety principles and fail to train their personnel. Work zone safety is too often ignored. There is a growing trend to merely put up a sign to warn motorists to "give `em a brake" rather than install what is needed by drivers and pedestrians as well as legally required in a work zone.

All state highway department contracts that I have reviewed give substantial authority to the agency project engineer to order the contractor to make changes in traffic control or project work if the public or workers are in danger. The contract specifications also place an independent responsibility on the contractor to provide for the public and workers.

An illustration of the failures that occur on the part of both the state agency engineers and the contractor can be seen in a recent lawsuit in Louisiana. It is no secret that the Louisiana highway department has been involved in numerous lawsuits, many of which it has lost. For example, a lawsuit in a suburb of New Orleans involved the reconstruction of a main arterial with a traffic volume of 40,000 vehicles per day. The reconstruction added thru lanes and left-turn lanes at about 14 intersections. The traffic control plan drawn by the state consultants and approved by the State was void of any specific criteria about how long a left-turn lane excavation could be left open, or how traffic control devices were to be deployed. The plans simply refer the engineers and contractor to the MUTCD. The MUTCD is void of any specifics for the condition that needed treatment. The lawsuit involved a car that dropped its left wheels into the excavation, was unable to regain the road and thus struck a motorist stopped in the median waiting to cross the westbound lanes. The motorist who was struck brought a lawsuit against the State, their engineering consultants, the contractor, and the other driver.

Evidence indicated that the excavation was 8 to 12 inches deep and had been excavated 3 weeks prior to the accident. The police report showed only two traffic control devices at the site. One small barricade (Type I or II) was located in the median where the excavation began--450 feet from the intersection. A second barricade was located at the intersection in the median. Neither the contractor nor the state had any records to indicate what devices had been placed and where. The contractors foreman responsible for signing was unaware of the MUTCD. He testified that he used "common sense" when deciding what traffic controls to use. Even though he believed there were more barricades placed than shown by the police report, he didn't known what was there or, for that matter, what was required.

The State's project engineer responsible for the project testified that the MUTCD did not have provisions for traffic control in work zones and that he had not consulted the manual. He referred to the MUTCD, in his testimony, as "that thing". He further testified that, because there was no specific plan in the contract addressing left-turn- lane traffic control, he could not order the contractor to add any additional devices. He had not, in fact, asked the contractor to provide any additional devices. He was unsure what would have been required, but did agree that the devices shown on the police report were not adequate, in his opinion, to warn drivers of the hazard of the excavation next to the travel lane. This project engineer was clearly unfamiliar with his own contract authority and responsibilities. The lawsuit was settled a few days before it went to trial.

I would like to tell you that this lawsuit in Louisiana is an exceptional situation, but the records that I have reviewed would indicate otherwise. Just from an economic perspective, it would be far better to place a dozen or so Type I or II barricades than to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars or, perhaps, millions to injured plaintiffs or their estates. But then of course you would have to train the personnel. I might add that the agency and contractor that has made no attempt to utilize formal training courses, such as those of the American Traffic Safety Services Association, will be in a poor position to argue to a jury that they complied with the MUTCD--regardless of the vague language. The insurance companies seem to understand that ignorance is no defense and are settling cases for large sums where there is a blatant disregard for basic safe guards.

One city, Overland Park, Kansas has an ordinance that is commendable and should be considered for expansion and application by all government agencies responsible for work zones on public roads. The City has adopted the 1987 "Traffic Control Handbook for Street Maintenance and Construction Operations." The handbook is a supplement to the Federal MUTCD. It contains provisions for responsibility procedures, for obtaining permission to work in city streets, permit requirements, surety bonds, closures and disruptions to traffic, time limits, liability of work and penalties, and other information on use of traffic control devices. The handbook provides:

Any person convicted of a violation of any of the provisions of or failing to comply with any of the mandatory requirements of the ordinances of the city for which another penalty is not specifically provided is guilty of a public offense and punishable by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars or by imprisonment not to exceed six months, or by both such fine and imprisonment. Each such person is guilty of a separate offense for each and every day during any portion of which any violation of any provision of the city ordinances is committed, continued or permitted by any such person; and shall be punished accordingly.

Only when the standards and guidelines are clear, when the requirements for training and knowledge are specific, and when enforcement is implemented and applied will we see a substantial reduction in injuries and death in work zones and a substantial drop in lawsuits and awards.

Copyright © 1999 by TranSafety, Inc.

Back to Index       Top of Page