Tag Archives: work zone

Using Smartphones to Deliver Effective In-Vehicle Work Zone Messages

Under simulated conditions, drivers were not distracted by controlled work zone-related messages delivered through smartphones. In fact, driving performance improved. Researchers also learned that the location of the smartphone did not affect the driver if the message included an auditory component.

“The main goal was to determine whether in-vehicle warnings conveyed through smartphones would be distracting to the driver. We found that wasn’t the case,” said Ken Johnson, Work Zone, Pavement Marking and Traffic Devices Engineer, MnDOT Office of Traffic, Safety and Technology.

“We learned that drivers had a lower mental workload when they experienced the in-vehicle messages. It really didn’t matter what modality we used. Half the messages were auditory only, and half were auditory paired with visual,” said Nichole Morris, Director, University of Minnesota HumanFIRST Laboratory.

What Was the Need?

Highway work zones require drivers to reduce speed and be aware of work crews, lane closures, traffic backups, construction equipment and other potential hazards on the roadway.

Transportation departments have long employed stationary warning signs, sometimes supplemented by portable changeable message signs (PCMSs), to alert drivers to upcoming construction projects. However, some previous studies have indicated that stationary warning signs are not always effective. In addition, PCMSs are costly and may be difficult to deploy in the field.

Smartphone technology offers an opportunity to deliver accurate and early in-vehicle warnings about road construction miles ahead. Digital messages could alert drivers about upcoming work zone conditions and improve safety for drivers and workers in the field.

But receiving in-vehicle messages about work zone conditions could distract drivers from safely operating their vehicles. MnDOT needed to study the advantages and disadvantages of using smart-phones to deliver in-vehicle work zone messages.

What Was Our Goal?

The primary goal of this project was to determine whether smartphones have the potential to safely deliver effective and accurate messages to drivers about upcoming road construction on Minnesota highways.

What Did We Do?

A 7-inch LCD screen
A smartphone was replicated through installation of an LCD screen positioned inside the driving simulator.

The research team developed and conducted an online survey that focused on Minnesota drivers’ perceptions of work zone safety and on their attitudes toward using smartphones and potentially receiving in-vehicle messages regarding work zone conditions.

Data from the surveys was used by the HumanFIRST Laboratory at the University of Minnesota to develop a driving simulation study designed to determine whether in-vehicle messages sent by smartphones could promote safe driving in work zones. The study analyzed 48 drivers operating a driving simulator within two work zones to test reactions to in-vehicle messages as compared to messages displayed on an external PCMS system. Researchers collected data about each participant’s visual attention, driving performance, mental workload and opinions on smartphone technology.

Researchers also reviewed previous national studies and published works to identify environmental and driver behavior risk factors related to work zones.

What Did We Learn?

An analysis of the simulation results showed drivers were very responsive to receiving in-vehicle messages regarding work zones and roadway hazards. Messages presented through smartphones did not cause driver distractions. In fact, some drivers’ performance actually improved following delivery of audiovisual messages.

Drivers preferred to receive audio messages, and researchers learned that a synthesized female voice (like Apple’s Siri) resulted in greater awareness and acceptance from the driver than a more natural or prerecorded voice.

Survey findings showed that only 5 percent of participants use a dashboard mount for their smartphones, while the vast majority keep their phone in the cup holder, on the console, in a backpack or purse, or on the passenger seat. A few participants said they hold their smartphone while driving. Investigating the safety impact of this behavior paired with an in-vehicle messaging system, researchers found that the location of the smartphone within the simulator (on the dash or passenger seat) did not negatively impact driver safety or performance, providing the work zone message contained the auditory component.

In-vehicle messages required less cognitive effort from drivers, and drivers had greater recall of the hazard warning message versus stationary PCMS signage.

A significant number of survey participants, nearly 20 percent, provided unprompted feedback that it was the state’s responsibility to provide factual work zone messaging information and to ensure in-vehicle technology employed does not pose a distraction.

What’s Next?

MnDOT will need to continue research into the viability of smartphones as the way to deliver in-vehicle work zone messages. The simulation study provided the findings needed to advance the project to field testing, where drivers would respond to in-vehicle messages from smartphones on a test track or under real roadway conditions. Another potential topic to explore through further research is the viability of messages delivered through electronic interface or dashboard features offered on some newer vehicles.

MnDOT should identify the medium needed to deliver in-vehicle messages and use the prescribed syntax outlined by the study for communicating messages. Researchers noted the existing 511 service provided by MnDOT currently provides road, traffic, weather and other information. A study should be undertaken to determine whether the 511 or a third-party app would be most appropriate for a future statewide in-vehicle messaging program.


This post pertains to Report 2017-19, “In-Vehicle Work Zone Messages,” published June 2017.

Self-propelled auto-flagger keeps workers out of traffic

Working with a Minnesota manufacturer, researchers developed a moving automated flagger assistance device (AFAD) that signals traffic at work zones. The AFAD is operated remotely by a worker who can stand off the roadway out of traffic.

“Everybody who has used the mobile AFAD has liked it. We love our stationary AFAD unit. These units have really big stop-slow signs—they’re so visible,” said Jeremy Gjovik, Transportation Operations Supervisor, MnDOT District 3.

“The AFAD is a one-of-a-kind device. We were able to basically start from scratch and come up with a device that meets all the needs it was designed for,” said Edward Terhaar, Principal, Traffic Engineering, Wenck Associates, Inc.

Terhaar served as the principal investigator for the study.

What Was the Need?

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 149 roadway workers were killed nationwide from 2003 to 2015 while flagging or directing traffic, and many near misses have been reported with the increase in distracted driving that has come with mobile device use.

In 2014, MnDOT trained over 60 state and district maintenance workers in the use of an automated flagger assistance device (AFAD). The AFAD has been embraced in Minnesota as a highly visible device that effectively directs traffic in stationary maintenance and construction projects while keeping flagging personnel off the road during operation.

The AFAD does not, however, suit moving operations (like pavement crack sealing) because the device requires towing. Engineers at MnDOT wanted to determine if the AFAD could be made into a mobile device that could be operated by a road crew near, but not on, the roadway.

What Was Our Goal?

MnDOT funded this research to develop a self-contained, self-propelled mobile AFAD for use on moving work zone roadway projects.

What Did We Do?

2017-09-p2-imageResearchers met with MnDOT engineers to identify the features that would be required in a moving AFAD. They determined that the device would have to be towable to a construction site with standard towing gear, operable remotely through wired or wireless controls, movable forward and in reverse, and able to use rechargeable onboard batteries.

The research team investigated existing self-propelled devices from the United States, Canada and Australia for moving wheeled objects, large and small, to see if they could be adapted to these needs. No suitable device was found.

After further consultation with the Technical Advisory Panel, researchers approached DJ Products of Little Falls, Minnesota, a company that designs and manufactures devices (including battery-operated devices) for moving trailers, dumpsters, shopping carts and aircraft.

Researchers met with DJ Products in February 2015, reviewed its products and agreed that DJ Products would develop a prototype vehicle on which the AFAD could be mounted. In August 2015, after evaluating and modifying designs, DJ Products hosted a demonstration of the prototype vehicle without the AFAD attached. The research team requested modifications, and in April 2016, the company presented a new self-propelled device with the AFAD attached.

What Did We Learn?

Initial field testing was delayed due to seasonal weather issues and device operating problems that required the replacement of components. In February 2017, a MnDOT operator tested the mobile AFAD on a crack-sealing project on State Highway 71 south of Sauk Centre.

The moving AFAD can be operated with a wired or wireless controller, as well as with controls on a handlebar mounted on the vehicle. Operators must use one remote for moving the wheeled unit, and the remote from the original AFAD for sign messaging. The new device moves forward and backward, can be towed with a standard hitch, and employs onboard batteries and a charger.

Setup and takedown require more effort than conventional flagging, but this effort is not considered cumbersome. The moving AFAD can be operated by one person standing 400 feet or more off the roadway, and the device is large enough to be easily seen and understood by road users.

The new device was used for only one hour initially. The sealing crew was outpacing the moving AFAD because the crack-sealing project entailed few repairs with greater distance between repair locations than is typical of such projects.

What’s Next?

The moving AFAD device can be used as is, and is still being tested by MnDOT. Further modifications will be requested, including enhancement of the battery-powered unit, as it currently requires a battery change to operate through an entire work shift.

Steering and controller design will likely be modified. Currently, the moving AFAD operates like a rear-wheel-drive vehicle and must be steered from its rear-wheel, traffic-facing axle, forcing the remote operator to guide it up the road as if backing up a boat trailer. MnDOT operators may ask that the device be redesigned to be steerable from the traffic-leading end of the vehicle, as if it were pulling the signage up the road, allowing for more intuitive control.

MnDOT personnel would also like to see the device’s controller integrated with the sign controller, eliminating the need for two controllers—one for moving, the other for operating the sign. Nevertheless, the device appears to be a promising option for mobile AFAD use by an operator who need not stand on the road to direct traffic.


This Technical Summary pertains to Report 2017-09, “Development of a Moving Automatic Flagger Assistance Device (AFAD) for Moving Work Zone Operations,” published March 2017. 


Previous research:

Work-zone warnings could soon be delivered to your smartphone

Imagine that you’re driving to work as usual when your smartphone announces, “Caution, you are approaching an active work zone.” You slow down and soon spot orange barrels and highway workers on the road shoulder. Thanks to a new app being developed by University of Minnesota researchers, this scenario is on its way to becoming reality.

“Drivers often rely on signs along the roadway to be cautious and slow down as they approach a work zone. However, most work-zone crashes are caused by drivers not paying attention,” says Chen-Fu Liao, senior systems engineer at the U’s Minnesota Traffic Observatory. “That’s why we are working to design and test an in-vehicle work-zone alert system that announces additional messages through the driver’s smartphone or the vehicle’s infotainment system.”

As part of the project, sponsored by MnDOT, Liao and his team investigated the use of inexpensive Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) tags to provide in-vehicle warning messages. The BLE tags were programmed to trigger spoken messages in smartphones within range of the tags, which were placed on construction barrels or lampposts ahead of a work zone.

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The researchers also developed two applications for the project. First, they designed a smartphone app to trigger the audio-visual messages in vehicle-mounted smartphones entering the range of the BLE work-zone tags. A second app allows work-zone contractors to update messages associated with the BLE tags remotely, in real time, to provide information on current conditions such as workers on site, changes in traffic, or hazards in the environment.

Field tests proved the system works. “We found that while traveling at 70 miles per hour, our app is able to successfully detect a long-range BLE tag placed more than 400 feet away on a traffic barrel on the roadway shoulder,” Liao says. “We also confirmed the system works under a variety of conditions, including heavy traffic and inclement weather.”

“This was a proof of concept that showed that smartphones can receive Bluetooth signals at highway speeds and deliver messages to drivers,” says Ken Johnson, work-zone, pavement marking, and traffic devices engineer at MnDOT. “Future research will look into how we should implement and maintain a driver alert system.”

This future work includes using the results of a human factors study currently under way at the U’s HumanFIRST Laboratory to create recommendations for the in-vehicle message phrasing and structure. Then, researchers plan to conduct a pilot implementation with multiple participants to further evaluate the system’s effectiveness.

According to MnDOT, another phase of the project may investigate how to effectively maintain the BLE tag database. This phase could also investigate implementation options, such as how MnDOT can encourage drivers to download and use the app.

Smartphone app guides blind pedestrians through work zones (updated)

Each year, approximately 17 percent of road construction work zone fatalities nationwide are pedestrians.

At special risk are the visually impaired, who rely on walking and public transportation to get around.

A major challenge  for them is crossing the street — which is even more difficult if an intersection is torn up.

MnDOT has invested significant effort to accommodate pedestrians, particularly those with disabilities, in temporary traffic control situations. This includes requiring temporary curb ramps and alternative routes when a sidewalk is closed.

Researchers, funded by MnDOT, have now developed a cell phone application to guide blind pedestrians around a work-zone.

Illustration of Bluetooth beaconplacement at decision points around a work zone.
Illustration of Bluetooth beacon placement at decision points around a work zone.

Building on previous work to provide geometric and signal timing information to visually impaired pedestrians at signalized intersections, the smartphone-based navigation system alerts users to upcoming work zones and describes how to navigate such intersections safely.

The smartphone application uses GPS and Bluetooth technologies to determine a user’s location. Once a work zone is detected, the smartphone vibrates and announces a corresponding audible message. The user can tap the smartphone to repeat the message, if needed.

The federal government strongly encourages states to provide either audible warnings or tactile maps at work zones where visually impaired pedestrians are expected to be impacted.

“The smartphone application is a step in that direction,” said MnDOT technical liaison Ken Johnson. “It’s a way to see if this type of way-finding device would work.”

Since smartphone use is still limited, the state is also interested in special equipment that could relay the audible warnings at affected work zones.

“However, smartphone use is increasing in the general population, as well as with persons with disabilities, and there will likely be a day when it will be rare to not have a smartphone and this tool could meet road agency needs,” Johnson said.

Before developing the smartphone application, researchers surveyed 10 visually impaired people about their experiences at work zones and what types of information would be helpful in bypass or routing instructions.

The University of Minnesota research team, led by Chen-Fu Liao, tested the smartphone application by attaching four Bluetooth beacons to light posts near a construction site in St. Paul.

Additional research is now needed to conduct experiments with visually impaired users and evaluate system reliability and usefulness.

*Update 4/29/2014: Check out this story from KSTP on the app.

More information

Development of a Navigation System Using Smartphone and Bluetooth Technologies to Help the Visually Impaired Navigate Work Zones Safely — Final Report (PDF, 1 MB, 86 pages)

‘Intelligent’ traffic drum could help prevent work-zone tragedies

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A prototype of the Intelligent Drum Line system.

Work-zone safety is a serious, ongoing challenge for transportation agencies. According to MnDOT, the current three-year average for Minnesota work zones is 1,819 crashes and seven fatalities per year. And that’s not counting near-misses: just talk to anyone who has worked as a flagger, and they will likely have a story about diving into a ditch to avoid being hit by a distracted driver. Consequently, MnDOT is constantly exploring ways to make work zones safer — which brings me to the photo above.

What you’re looking at is no ordinary traffic cone. It’s a prototype of a new warning device called the Intelligent Drum Line system — basically a modified orange traffic drum packed with electronics that can detect speeding drivers and blast them with audiovisual cues to let them know they’re entering the work zone too fast.

Our new technical summary explains the details of the new system, which was developed at the University of Minnesota, with funding and in-kind assistance from MnDOT:

The prototype design uses two modified traffic drums placed 1 to 3 feet from the shoulder of the road and 300 to 400 feet apart. Sensors in the first drum detect vehicles, measure their speed and distance, and communicate this information to the second drum…

When the IDL system detects an oncoming vehicle traveling faster than a threshold speed, the system activates visual warning systems in both drums and initiates a countdown. When the speeding vehicle is approximately 1 second away from the first drum, the system activates an air horn to warn the driver.

As the vehicle passes the first drum, the audible alarm terminates and the system transmits a command to the second drum to start another countdown. When the vehicle is approximately 1 second away from the second drum, the system activates another audible alarm.

Testing of the IDL system at MnROAD has been successful; however, researchers still need to study how drivers react to the system in real-world conditions. Before they can do that, the design will have to be refined so that it can pass Federal Highway Administration crashworthiness tests. On a related note, MnDOT is currently funding a separate University of Minnesota study into which technologies are most effective at capturing drivers’ attention in work zones. The study will include visual and auditory cues similar to the ones used in the IDL prototype.

Learn more: