It’s now considered the world’s largest and most extensive resource for roadway work zone safety. But 20 years ago, the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse was just an idea — to have one location where practitioners could find information about how to improve work zone safety. It was an idea born from necessity because thousands of motorists, pedestrians and construction workers were being killed or injured each year in highway work zones.
In 1997, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) partnered with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) to collect information and operate the clearinghouse, with the goal of significantly reducing work zone safety-related deaths and injuries. The clearinghouse officially became operational in April 1998.
At that time, only about 25 percent of U.S. households had Internet access, and there was relatively little World Wide Web content available. The concept of corresponding by email was still new to many people, and cell phones were only able to make telephone calls. There was no such thing as a mobile browser app.
“The clearinghouse was originally going to operate as a hotline where work zone professionals and others could call in, fax or use regular mail to ask questions,” recalls TTI Senior Research Engineer Jerry Ullman, who manages TTI’s Work Zone and Dynamic Signs Program. Ullman is also the principal investigator overseeing the clearinghouse. “But we quickly realized that the Internet was going to dramatically alter information accessibility and how people interacted with each other, so we began developing a website where you could easily find and directly access research, best practices, ideas, products, data, training courses, outreach campaigns and legislation related to work zone safety.”
In 2017, after two decades of clearinghouse personnel serving the public, some people still call the hotline number. But most users seeking information simply go to https://www.workzonesafety.org/. Since going online, the website has received more than 10 million page views, and an average of 10,000 users now access the site each month.
“Safety has been a core ARTBA competency since its founding in 1902,” says ARTBA President Pete Ruane. “The nascent National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse of 1997 has grown into the world’s largest online resource on all topics relating to roadway construction safety in 2017. That success didn’t just happen. It is the result of a collaborative partnership and hard work by transportation construction industry leaders, FHWA and TTI.”
Since its humble beginnings, the clearinghouse website has been through several redesigns in order to accommodate and better disseminate the reams of data its personnel share with users. At the website’s helm is TTI Research Librarian Hong Yu, hired by TTI just as the clearinghouse was getting started. After 20 years as the clearinghouse librarian and webmaster, she views the clearinghouse as one of her proudest accomplishments. Over the years, Yu has spoken at conferences, conducted webinars, and collected numerous thank-you notes from appreciative users. She’s naturally become very proud of the role she plays in helping save lives.
“I have been touched by many stories users share with me,” Yu says. She will never forget what a very grateful California contractor said to her after he received the information she sent him: “If we’d had this information before, my coworker would not have been killed.”
“There is no way we could bring back the life of his coworker. But I’m glad what we do here at the clearinghouse has made a difference, and we can help prevent future fatalities,” she explains with enthusiasm. “With that in mind, I feel all our hard work day in and day out is paying off.”
Although it’s difficult to determine how many lives have been saved or how many injuries have been prevented as a result of the clearinghouse, it’s clear that work zone safety has now become a national priority.
“The ARTBA-led clearinghouse has become a critical outlet for both the public and private sectors,” says Paul Pisano, head of FHWA’s Work Zone Management Program. “I have the utmost respect and confidence in ARTBA and TTI, especially in Jerry’s and Hong’s capabilities, and their exceptional service.”