Take a dynamic work zone that can change daily. Add distracted drivers. What do you get? That’s what the Texas Department of Transportation wanted to know. Jason Crawford, manager of the Texas Transportation Institute’s North Texas Region, began looking for answers.
What he and his team of researchers discovered is that more drivers are turning their attention away from driving while passing through a construction zone. The roadway in question is a $1 billion project known as the DFW Connector, which skirts the northwest side of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Over 200,000 motorists pass through it daily.
TTI researchers were asked to evaluate the work zone because of higher-than-normal crashes, especially at night and on weekends. A statistical review separated injury crashes from non-injury crashes. That analysis showed that injury crashes occurred less frequently than the national work zone average, while property damage crashes happened more often.
Researchers concluded that the higher night and weekend crash numbers were the result of driver distraction, since drivers failed to notice traffic flow changes resulting from lane and total freeway closures. Crawford notes, “There can’t be any lane closures during the day. All of the work that happens above traffic lanes or impacts highway lanes occurs overnight or on the weekends.”
Crawford describes the construction area as “one where you have a lot of merging traffic. You also have a lot of weaving traffic. There are temporary lane shifts the contractor has in place. If you’re not really paying attention and the lane shifts, you could sideswipe someone.”
Cell phones may be adding to the complexity of navigating the work zone. Average cell use while driving in the Dallas/Fort Worth area is 6 percent, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates. TTI researchers noted 12 percent usage in the DFW Connector work zone. Researchers feel that cell phone use could be a contributing factor to increased property damage crashes, although data did not allow them to make a causal link.
“We’re trying to get drivers to slow down and pay attention. The landscape for that construction project can change almost on a daily basis as you’re going through. There are crashes. And, the rate of cell phone usage is twice what you’d normally see,” Crawford says.
The study determined that drivers do not accurately perceive the safety risks involved with distracted driving in a complex construction zone like the DFW Connector.
The contractor has already acted on the findings. “Since we came out with the cell phone study, the contractor has implemented a number of coordinated campaigns, through banners and bumper stickers,” says Crawford. “The campaigns encourage drivers to slow down and pay attention.” The banners state, “Please don’t text and drive. My Daddy Works Here,” and “Let us work safely. Drive 50 mph!”
“They’re trying to increase awareness, not only for their guys, but also for the motoring public,” Crawford explains.
The study also recommends changes to lane-shift locations and markings, lighting practices and site maintenance to make the DFW Connector the safest work zone possible.