Keeping Work Zones Safe is Job One for Traffic Control Technicians



Construction, maintenance, and utility tasks take place on highways and roads every day in order to maintain and upgrade them. Changes in traffic patterns, narrowed travel lanes and worker exposure can create situations amendable to crashes, injuries, and fatalities.

utility flagger holding stop sign on road in construction zoneFurthermore, work zone accidents cause excessive delays, especially given the constrained driving environment of work zones. Safe and effective work zone setups alleviate these challenges and risks.

Each year, numerous workers who perform these tasks are injured or killed in work zone crashes, as are drivers and their passengers, pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, says Tim Luttrell, P.E., an independent consultant and master instructor for the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA). It is the leading source of information for the roadway safety infrastructure industry.

Typically, more than 900 fatalities occur in work zones each year, according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The National Safety Council (NSC) reported that in 2021, 954 people were killed and 42,151 people were injured in work zone crashes.

Vital function

Traffic control technicians play an essential role for safety in work zones, Luttrell points out. Their objective is to minimize risk by setting up and managing the orderly and safe movement of all traffic through a work zone.

“It is all about the safety of workers, drivers and the vulnerable road users (VRU) – such as a pedestrian or somebody on a bicycle or motorcycle,” he says.

Among the traffic control technician’s responsibilities is knowing the types of facilities and their requirements, determining the routes traffic will take, considering all potential hazards and putting in place measures to control traffic, explains Luttrell. These technicians are also charged with the installation, removal and maintenance of temporary traffic control devices in work zones, monitoring their performance and recognizing potential issues in and around a work zone.

Temporary traffic control devices include signs, channelizing devices and arrow boards, as well as supplemental devices such as portable signals, changeable message signs, and portable temporary rumble strips. All of these are designed to communicate warnings and guidance to road users.

Setting up, maintaining, and removing traffic control devices and signs is a particularly high exposure time for traffic control technicians, notes Luttrell. He encourages the use of protective vehicles with attenuators in appropriate situations and they may be required in some instances.In Western Colorado Generation Z Male Student Studying on Work Break Photo Series Matching 4K Video Available (Photos professionally retouched - Lightroom / Photoshop - downsampled as needed for clarity and select focus used for dramatic effect) Canon Full-Frame Cameras Used: 5DS and RP

These vehicles often have crash cushions – also known as attenuators – attached to the rear of the vehicle and also have prescribed weights in order to meet the standards, he adds. The vehicles are designed to absorb the kinetic energy of an errant vehicle to protect drivers and vehicle occupants that impact the back of the truck. Crash cushions also may reduce the damage caused during a collision.

Importance of training

Because of the importance of their work, traffic control technicians need to be properly trained in safe practices to keep themselves, motorists, VRUs and other road workers safe, Luttrell says. The training requirements often vary by state.

He noted that the American Traffic Safety Services Foundation (ATSSF) in collaboration with Work Zone Safe has created curriculum on work zone safety for driver education programs, currently being implemented in Oklahoma.

ATSSF promotes roadway safety through charitable giving and public awareness programs. Work Zone Safe focuses on work zone safety education and engagement tools for new teen drivers.

“There is a lot of worker-based training in our industry on roadway safety and we are focused on it every day,” Luttrell says. “However, motorists are not getting an equivalent training, leaving us with a particularly important challenge in maintaining high levels of safety. While we need broader reach, efforts are being made to get people information on what to do and what not to do in work zones.”

By way of example, he pointed to the late merge concept which is included in the new Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD). This is when both lanes are used and drivers take their turn to merge when they get to the merge point.

“This prevents an aggressive driver from going around everybody and forcing their way in,” he explains.

“The standards have changed somewhat over time as a result of what we know about how motorists perceive things and what they can do,” says Luttrell. “Trying to get motorists to do things that are counterintuitive to them is difficult. The new standards should help in alleviating some of the challenges we face.”

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