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Travel smart: IDOT and U of I help develop guidelines for smart work zones

In Illinois, an average of 6,406 work zone crashes occurred each year from 2015 to 2019. That’s why effectively and quickly communicating real-time travel information in work zones is essential to helping Illinois to make roads safer and drive down the number of traffic fatalities in Illinois to zero.

Smart work zone systems, which use sensors to collect real-time data such as speed and traffic volume to communicate travel information to drivers as they approach work zones, are the key to getting ahead of potential problems. Three Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering faculty members at the University of Illinois are working to develop design guidelines for smart work zone systems in a recently awarded IDOT and Illinois Center for Transportation project.

The University of Illinois’ Khaled El-Rayes serves as principal investigator, Ernest-John Ignacio and Yanfeng Ouyang are co-principal investigators. Juan Pava, IDOT’s safety program unit chief in the Bureau of Safety Programs and Engineering, also leads the effort.

Their goal? Improve safety and mobility in work zones by determining when smart work zone systems are needed, how to design them and how to ensure the systems are adequately operating. The project, which began Jan. 1, will focus on creating design guidance for smart work zone systems.

“By providing or developing these guidelines, we’ll be able to better utilize the technology and better inform road users of traffic conditions and, ultimately, have better safety outcomes and reduce fatalities and serious injuries,” Pava said.

The research team will also develop a tool to assess when smart work zone systems are needed on different types of projects. This user-friendly tool is expected to help IDOT designers identify the need for smart work zone systems in different projects based on their specific conditions and characteristics, such as work zone length, number of lane closures, and more.

“The tool will analyze the specific conditions and requirements of each individual project and provide recommendations if this project is a good candidate for deploying smart work zone systems,” El-Rayes said.

The proposed guidelines and tool are expected to increase safety and mobility for drivers as well as reduce frustrations at work zones by helping to quickly identify alternate routes.

For Pava, the goal of developing the guidelines is to get ahead of potential problems.

“We shouldn’t only be reactive to problems seen in the field,” he said. “With this project, we will be able to potentially prevent serious injuries and fatalities that will continue to happen in work zones unless we try to get in front of them.”

The project is expected to conclude next year.