Enhancing worker safety – new technology may light the way

Highway workerHighway maintenance workers will tell you, to work along the road, you must keep a constant eye on both the work you are doing and the traffic moving around you. But splitting your concentration isn’t ideal and it can be dangerous.

As part of the Iowa DOT’s Business Plan,  a one-year objective for 2022 seeks to “Improve Work Zone Safety.” One element of that objective is focused on helping motorists better see work zones, theoretically helping them avoid crashes in work areas.  With the 2020 deaths of two of our employees, Lynn Roder and Jeff Arbogast, fresh in our hearts and minds, this objective has become even more urgent.

Over the last 10 years, an average of seven people have been killed each year in Iowa work zones. Nationwide in 2020 alone, 857 people lost their lives and 44,000 people have been injured because of crashes in work zones.

Work zone crash data graph

Sinclair Stolle of the Traffic Operations Bureau and Mitch Wood, the district 6 maintenance manager, lead a team in researching ways to make Iowa workers and work zones more visible to motorists using technology. The theory they are testing is that more visible work zones and workers will lead to fewer crashes and fatalities.

Wood said, “Because of the nature of our work, our employees and those of our contractor partners put themselves in harm’s way every day. On high-volume roads, that work is often performed at night when there is less traffic so we can help minimize the risks. Because we’re working in the dark, we need to make sure our work zones and workers are as visible as possible to drivers.”

Lighted barrels in work zones

One of the technologies being studied on Interstate 74 in Scott County is a series of 15 lamps placed on top of orange barrels that use sequentially flashing lights to visually guide traffic to the preferred lane in a work zone.

I-74 test project

Barrel light up closeStolle added, “When they are switched on, the lights provide a path for vehicles to follow, almost like runway lights at an airport. When the work zone isn’t active, the devices are turned off and moved to the side of the road.”

Wood said, “One of the most important tools we have to keep people safer is our ability to let drivers know when there is something ahead that they need to pay special attention to. The lights we are testing on I-74 are not only a visible reminder to those on the road that there is a work zone ahead, but they are also enabled with GPS and impact sensors which, in the future, can send information back to our Traffic Management Center once they are deployed. That would allow the traffic management center to update 511 so the work zone information on the website and app is current. When drivers have accurate information about road work, they can make safer travel decisions.”

Work zone lighted flares

A second technology being tested on maintenance projects is the use of lighted flares that can be easily used on their own or placed under traffic cones to alert drivers to a work zone. Once a flare is removed from its case, it will automatically send a notification to Waze and Google Maps users alerting them there is a construction event. If these flares prove to be useful, future plans could include linking them to our 511 system to provide an automated, accurate location of active work zones.

Wood said, “Our maintenance crews are testing these flares and, so far, the input we have received has been positive. We will continue to test out these technologies and, with the input of our field staff, develop a plan going forward that works best for our needs.”

Smart work zone box

Smart work zone boxA third technology currently being tested is Smart Work Zone Box. The purpose of the device is to quickly alert the traffic management center when signs or other devices used in work zones, have been hit.

Stolle said, “This automated notification will help us deploy replacement equipment more quickly and may assist us in planning safer work zone set-ups in the future.“

Tying it all together – the Work Zone Data Exchange

The three technologies currently being tested all have the capabilities to feed information to another new initiative, Iowa DOT's deployment of a work zone data exchange feed. Iowa DOT in partnership with Iowa State University and Q-Free was one of 13 states that received a USDOT demonstration grant in 2021 to produce a work zone data feed. This data feed provides information in a format that third-party traffic information apps like Google and Waze and vehicle manufacturers can integrate into their systems.

Stolle explained, “The plan is to also bring these data sources together into our traffic management software to keep our workers and the traveling public safer by providing more accurate information on our 511 system. One of our challenges, related to work zones, is getting real-time information from the field to pass along to drivers. By using these smart devices, in the future, we may not need a human notification to our TMC about when work zones are active.”

These smart technologies are just some of the technologies the team is looking at. Other options that will be tested include the following.

  • Smart vests and other wearable devices that are designed to provide notifications to workers when vehicles are nearby. They also emit a signal that lets the workers know if they are getting too close to the work zone boundary.
  • Smart portable rumble strips that are equipped to provide information on their location and if the work zone is currently active.

To find updates to the Iowa DOT’s business plan go to

I am so happy to read of the new technology to prevent DOT employees from being killed on the job.

Before I retired there in December 1998, two employees died in northern Central Iowa .

There was a special area built to recognize all employees who died on the job and a dedication was made before I retired. There are names were shown on the wall.

I met one of the wives of the two that died in my earlier paragraph.

Well done DOT!

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