Toll Facility Safety Study Report to Congress
Appendix D - Agency Site Visits
This section presents findings according to the following contributing factors that the study team took note of during the site visits. Along with each contributing factor are strategies that the various sites have implemented to address these challenges.
- Merging / Lane Changing Behavior
- Driver Confusion and Distraction
- Worker Exposure to Vehicles
- Environmental Issues
Note that much of the information presented here was also presented, together with a synthesis of the interviews and the workshop, in Section 4, Findings - Factors Affecting Safety at Toll Plazas.
Merging / Lane Changing Behavior
Toll plazas present unique challenges in terms of lane-changing behavior and merging. Many plazas operate much like a complex intersection (i.e., there are on-ramps or off-ramps in close proximity to the plaza, which creates excessive weaving maneuvers).
Speed variance between ETC and cash-paying customers is a challenge faced by all plazas accepting both electronic and cash payment. Toll authorities across the country have tackled this problem in a variety of ways. To start, many agencies make a standard practice of positioning their ETC lanes to the left side of their plazas, with the idea that the faster-moving traffic will be to the left side of the roadway. This practice appears to be effective except in situations where there are on-ramps or off-ramps in close proximity to the plaza, in which case this practice causes unnecessary weaving maneuvers. To combat this, many agencies have taken to positioning dedicated-ETC lanes to both the left and right side of certain plazas.
Beyond this, some agencies have gone toward channelizing ETC traffic well in advance of the plaza to reduce last-minute lane changes, and to channelize ETC traffic downstream of the plaza to delay merging of traffic. Other agencies have begun adding a buffer lane between the ETC lanes and cash or mixed-use lanes or to use physical separation (such as with a concrete barrier) for the higher-speed traffic.
More common than physical separation, many agencies make use of delineators. However, visibility can be an issue. To combat this problem, one agency replaced their solid white delineators with wide yellow sergeant-striped delineators. Others have found that visibility was improved after positioning the delineators in a "bowling pin" configuration instead of a straight line. For those agencies that face an additional challenge in that their lane assignments change throughout the day, pop-up delineators can be a good approach. However, some agencies in colder climates have found that pop-up delineators do not perform so well during snow and icy conditions. To address this, the NYS Thruway designed a new pop-up delineator in-house that operates off of air compression and survives the winters.
Safety can be further compromised when truck traffic is introduced to the plaza - so much so that one agency solicited feedback from truck drivers on the best configuration for one of their plazas (particularly on what would make the most sense for the location of the truck-only lanes in relation to the rest of the plaza). A common issue is that trucks are prohibited from traveling in the left lane on many roadways, which poses a weaving problem since the dedicated-ETC lanes - and in many cases the truck-only lanes Unda are located to the left side of the plaza.
The introduction of electronic toll collection - and particularly of high-speed ETC lanes - has introduced a new concern at plazas: speeding. Prior to the advent of ETC, every customer was required to come to a complete stop in order to collect a ticket or pay a toll. Now a good portion of customers are not required to stop at all, and in many cases, are able to maintain near highway speeds while passing through a plaza. Vehicles speeding through plazas present an obvious safety concern for workers, and as a result many agencies have implemented strategies specifically targeted at combating speeding.
Of the facilities visited by the team, those that reported having the lowest incidence of speeding were the NYS Thruway and the PANY/NJ. Although there is no hard data to substantiate this observation, it seems plausible that their extensive automated speed enforcement program may be the main success factor in keeping speeds under control. Through their automated enforcement program, cameras record violators and letters are mailed out to provide notification of the violation. The ETC tags are suspended for a period of time for those who are repeat or excessive violators. The agencies involved have found this practice to be particularly effective with trucking firms.
Another measure that many agencies felt played a role in successfully controlling speeds was gates. Where they are used, all customers - including those with electronic payment - must wait for a gate to lift before proceeding through the plaza. Typically the gates lift automatically as an ETC vehicle approaches, so ETC customers can proceed safely through the plaza without stopping as long as they maintain a reasonable speed (typically below 15 miles per hour). Excessive speeds also affect first responders and maintenance workers, and many agencies expressed concern about this. The PANY/NJ has combated this by equipping their maintenance vehicles with red lights (i.e., amber on front, red on back) to give motorists the impression of enforcement presence, and they feel that this has successfully lowered speeds.
Other speed mitigation strategies observed by the team on the site visits included:
- Using rumble strips in the area just upstream of the plaza to draw motorist's attention to their speed.
- Using pavement markings to lower speeds (e.g., transverse yellow pavement markings with spacing gives the illusion that you are speeding)
- Painting the speed limit on the pavement to reinforce the speed limit.
- Using regulatory speed limit signs rather than advisory to encourage motorist to obey the speed limit.
- Posting temporary or permanent signs displaying real-time speeds of motorists.
- Boosting enforcement presence at plazas with speeding issues.
Driver Confusion and Distraction
Toll plazas are inherently confusing environments. There are multiple distractions from merging vehicles, unfamiliar messages on signs, inconsistent lane configurations, and a wide variety of competing visual inputs. These issues are exacerbated by the fact that conditions may change from agency to agency, from plaza to plaza, and even by time of day. Not surprisingly driver confusion was frequently cited as one of the primary observed reasons for vehicle crashes at the various sites visited. Such confusion contributes to side-swipe collisions, rear-ends, vehicle strikes upon plaza infrastructure, and close-calls or collisions with toll workers. One of the biggest concerns related to driver confusion involves unfamiliar, non-ETC equipped drivers entering into and than stopping in high-speed ETC lanes. While this situation has improved somewhat over time, it remains a large concern at each of the sites visited in the study. A number of mitigation strategies have been implemented to address this situation. First there are a series of strategies that aim to direct non-ETC drivers away from ETC lanes in the first place. These include, public education campaigns to familiarize drivers with the concept of ETC, careful consideration of signs - for example supplementing ambiguous lane indication "brand signs," such as SunPASS, with generic signs such as "Pre-paid only," and specialized lane markings, such as differentiating high-speed ETC lanes with purple paint at the edges of the lanes and adding pavement markings.
Further mitigation strategies are aimed at preventing non-ETC equipped drivers who enter ETC lanes from stopping there. For example, some agencies have removed or reduced the conspicuity of driver violation warning signs - feeling that it is better to lose the toll (or pursue the toll through automated enforcement) than to have a vehicle stop in the high speed lanes. A great number of agencies have added signs that say DO NOT STOP or to DO NOT BACK UP. Others have gone so far as to add public address systems to communicate with drivers and instruct them to stay in their vehicle and to keep moving. However, there is some debate as the usefulness of this approach owing to noise and the impracticality of constantly monitoring the travel lanes for such situations.
As mentioned earlier, frequently changing conditions at toll plazas also contribute to driver confusion and distraction. These variable conditions include lane closures, changes in lane direction (at some facilities), changes in lane configuration (ETC versus Mixed Use), and the presence of maintenance activities (scheduled and otherwise). Strategies to combat these particular sources of driver confusion typically center on providing improved traveler information. For example, an increasing number of agencies are employing the use of VMS upstream of the toll plazas that could be used to warn drivers of unexpected conditions, such as incidents and maintenance activities. The NYS Thruway is experimenting with the use of digital signs upstream of the plaza indicating which lanes are accepting ETC and which are cash or mixed use. These electronic signs are supplemented by lane numbers painted on the pavement as drivers approach the plaza as well as by lane numbers on top of the canopy.
In terms of lane closure, a number of agencies simply use signs and traffic cones. Others use physical barriers or gates. Such gates are felt to aid in keeping drivers from entering closed lanes, but can be dangerous for collectors to put in place. Finally, there seems to be some diversity in the best way to communicate the status of lanes as closed or open - with messages ranging from LANE CLOSED to DO NOT ENTER. One agency used to use a stop sign on a gate, but moved away from this after noticing cars approaching the gate and waiting for it to open. Other agencies have moved away from written signs entirely - feeling that they add to visual clutter and confusion - and now simply employ a red X or a green arrow to indicate lane closure status.
The final significant source of driver distraction identified in the site visits was simple sensory overload, or the challenge of reading, recognizing, and appropriately acting upon the multitude of messages and signs presented to a driver approaching a plaza. Among the solutions sites have explored to combat this issue are efforts to minimize the number of signs, movements toward symbols (such as "$") in lieu of or in addition to words (such as "cash only"), simplification of messages, the placement of signs at eye level (as opposed to overhead or in-pavement), the use of focus groups to test different sign configurations and messages, and banning advertisements in the vicinity of plazas.
In addition to the various sources of confusion inherent in the design, layout, and operations of plaza facilities, drivers also introduce their own activities that contribute to inattention and distraction. While not unique to toll plazas, many customers engage in cell phone conversations, read maps, and undertake a variety of activities that have been demonstrated to cause driver distraction and crashes on all roadway facilities, not just toll plazas. In addition, a subset of drivers, colloquially referred to as "wavers," undertake a form of distraction that is unique to plaza facilities. These individuals fail to properly mount their ETC tags and instead hold them up to the windshield, out the window, etc. with little regard to traffic conditions around them. While there is not much that can be done to mitigate against the actions of these individuals, agencies have pursued strategies such as public education campaigns, provider warnings against the practice in billing mail-outs, and instructing toll collectors to look for and discourage the practice if possible.
Worker Exposure to Vehicles
When asked the one fear that kept them up at night, nearly every individual that the research team visited with gave the same response - a worker being struck by a vehicle. While such incidents are relatively rare,10 they have occurred, and the potential certainly exists for them to occur again. Among the factors that have contributed to such incidents in the past (or to more recent close calls) are the introduction of ETC lanes, the uncertainty of driver actions in mixed use lanes, the inability of operators of large trucks to see someone crossing directly in front of them, the dangers in closing a lane, and worker complacency.
Given the level of concern surrounding this particular safety issue, it is perhaps not surprising that a large and varied number of mitigation strategies have been tried and implemented to address the problem.
The most aggressive mitigation strategy to protect workers from vehicular traffic is the use of tunnels and bridges. Approximately half of the agencies visited by the research team had built such structures for their larger plaza facilities. However, these structures rarely prevented all incidents of workers being in the roadway. Most of the structures did not have entrances for each and every lane - consequently workers would still need to cross two to three lanes. Even if collectors could avoid crossing a lane by using the structure, they could still find themselves in live traffic - to pick up dropped monies, to assist customers having problems with their ETC transponders, or to close a lane. Further, the usage of such structures is typically not mandated (even when present) and their actual usage remains quite low. The reasons for this are varied - workers avoid bridges without elevators because of the need to climb stairs; tunnels are often dank and the entrances slippery, and the use of both structures can take more time than simply walking across a lane.
For those cases where workers must still cross traffic lanes (either because a tunnel or bridge does not have an entrance to every lane or such a structure is not present) agencies have generated a variety of different crossing procedures (both formal and informal). Nearly all agencies require workers to make eye contact with vehicles before crossing and to keep one hand free. However, these were the only two procedures that appeared to be common to all agencies visited. Crossing procedures that were employed by one or more agencies, but not common to all, included:
- Safety vests - most agencies required safety vests to be worn by workers at all times; others required them to be worn only when outside of the booth, one did not require vests at all.
- Prohibition on crossing any high-speed ETC lanes - A number of agencies had a strict prohibition against workers crossing high-speed ETC lanes, some only allowed supervisors to cross these lanes, others allowed all staff to cross such lanes.
- Limitation on crossing vehicles larger than an SUV - owing to an earlier incident, one agency did not allow their workers to cross in front of any vehicle larger than an SUV, fearing that operators of large trucks simply cannot see a person immediately in front of their vehicle.
- Signal intention - A number of agencies require their workers to signal their intent to cross to drivers and wait for confirmation from the driver.
- Prohibiting crossings behind vehicles - a number of agencies did not allow their workers to cross behind vehicles, for fear that the vehicle would back up. Other agencies did not have his prohibition.
- Require verbal cues - some workers have taken to providing verbal cues to motorists (e.g., yelling "I'm crossing!").
- Mutual support - workers at a number of agencies have adopted informal procedures of mutual support for lane crossing (i.e., collector in the booth directs the motorist to stop for the crossing collector).
- An escort - one agency suggested that it might be a good practice to employ a person to accompany workers while crossing lanes, much like a school crossing guard.
Other strategies are focused on warning the traveling public to watch out for workers in the plaza facility. These efforts include public education campaigns, the implementation of pedestrian crossing signs, and the use of hand-held stop signs by crossing employees.
One interesting finding from the study was the diversity in the location, demarcation, and set-up of collector crosswalks. Most of these crosswalks were located just downstream of the booth - minimizing the exposure time of the employee in walking from the cross-walk to the booth. However, a few agencies had tried alternative approaches. One had placed their crosswalks up-stream of the booth. This reduces the issue of vehicles not being able to see collectors crossing behind booths (and collectors not being able to see vehicles around booths). However, it also forces collectors to cross traffic lanes in an area where vehicles do not typically stop. Another agency had placed their crosswalks at a significant distance downstream of the booths. This provided the collectors with somewhat better sight lines and more time between vehicle acceleration (from the booth) and the crossing point. However, it also meant that collectors had a more difficult time making eye contact with stopped vehicles and with fellow collectors in booths that might offer mutual support. There was also significant diversity in the methods used to demark the locations where collectors should cross. Most agencies used crosswalks painted into the pavement and jersey barriers, or railings (with openings at the crosswalks) to encourage workers to use the cross-walk. However, a small number of agencies were not as restrictive as to where collectors could cross - while they may still use painted crosswalks, they do not physically channel collectors to openings with gates, etc. for fear that these barriers could present dangerous obstructions if a collector was outside of the cross-walk area and needed to quickly get out of the travel lanes.
Related to crosswalks, most agencies visited had implemented some type of mitigation strategy to remind workers that they were crossing live lanes of traffic. At the most extreme end, two of the agencies visited made use of "bars." These are physical gates adopted from use on fire trucks that must be carefully opened to enter into the travel lanes, but can be easily pushed through to get out of the travel lane. At the other end of the spectrum a number of agencies had simply stenciled or painted messages on the curbs abutting the travel lanes. These messages included "Look →" and "Watch for Traffic." Through conversations with collectors, the general consensus was that such messages tended to be effective for new employees or when first added, but became just part of the background and were ignored over time.
Several agencies visited stressed the importance of hands-free crossing. Having both hands free while crossing makes it easier for collectors to signal to oncoming traffic and to catch themselves if they fall. To facilitate hands-free crossing, a strategy mentioned by many agencies visited was to issue collectors shoulder bags or backpacks in which to carry their personal belongings to the booth (e.g., a sweater or bottle of water). In some cases the bag provided was a high-visibility color, such as orange, to make the collector more visible to motorists. One agency visited has even replaced their collector's cash drawers with cash bags that they can slip into a shoulder bag for completely hands-free crossing. Most collectors that the team talked with spoke favorably about using carry bags.
Other mitigation strategies related to worker safety in travel lanes included requiring workers to look over their shoulder (toward traffic) every few steps after closing barriers, providing break areas on either side of plaza facilities to minimize the number of lanes that need to be crossed, using attenuator trucks for all maintenance activities that require a lane closure, using side-fire cameras to allow for maintenance work without closing a lane (i.e., cameras are mounted by the roadside instead of overhead), and requiring maintenance workers to use a "buddy" system, with one worker watching for unsafe traffic conditions.
Toll collectors are exposed to a range of environmental hazards on the job, such as excessive noise and emissions. Through the site visits, the team found that agencies typically perform some combination of the following mitigation strategies to lessen the impact of these hazards:
- CO testing - Some agencies have CO monitors in their booths, while others perform periodic CO testing.
- Noise and emissions testing - Many agencies perform noise and emissions testing on a periodic basis and take measures to reduce these hazards if they are at unacceptable levels. As an example, one agency found excessive noise levels at a booth with high truck traffic and responded to this concern by putting time restrictions on working in that particular booth.
- Positive air pressure - Many agencies have positive air pressure in their booths, and all agencies retrofitting booths were adding positive air.
- Air conditioning - Agencies in warmer climates consistently had air conditioning in their booths; some provide collectors with individual controls in the booths.
In terms of protective equipment, the most common equipment that the agencies issue to collectors for environmental reasons are gloves, although most collectors interviewed by the study team reported that they do not wear gloves very often on the job either due to the negative public perception or due to the fact that they make it difficult to quickly perform work tasks. In addition to this, some agencies provide safety shoes to protect workers' feet from injury.
Beyond this, the work environment can pose physical hazards that can result in injuries such as slips, trips, and falls, which were commonly mentioned as the most prevalent workplace injury occurring at the plaza. Slips can be caused by icy or snowy conditions, from the presence of debris or other substances on the pavement, from uneven pavement, or simply from carelessness by workers when climbing stairs or curbs.
In terms of strategies to mitigate slips, an obvious solution is that most agencies make it a priority to keep the crossing areas clear of debris and oil. Beyond this, many agencies use grooved or textured pavement in the crossing area to provide better traction (for example, the Golden Gate Bridge has recently begun using a material called FlexCreteTM, a fiber-reinforced aerated concrete, in place of standard concrete at their crossing areas). For colder climates, ice and snow can present a challenge. One agency has made a point of positioning drain gates below the curb at all crossing areas to avoid ponding water, which can lead to icy conditions. Denver E-470 has recently begun offering collectors the option of wearing crampons which can be worn on the bottom of their shoes to provide better traction on snow and ice. Finally, as previously mentioned, several agencies focus on hands-free crossing with the use of shoulder bags to carry belongings to the booth (with the idea that having both hands free will make it easier for the collector to catch themselves if they fall).
In an attempt to mitigate trips, some of the agencies visited paint the edges of stairs and curbs to help with visibility and depth perception. For those agencies with tunnels, many stressed the importance of having handrails on both sides of tunnel stairways.
Another workplace injury commonly mentioned was strains, which are difficult to avoid given that the nature of the work requires a good deal of reaching and twisting. During the site visits it was noted that some agencies reduce these injuries with adjustable-height terminals, chairs, or cash drawers.
Many of the agencies visited have experienced injuries resulting from collectors' arms being pulled by customers as they pass through the plaza. To reduce these kinds of injuries, one agency has made it a point to instruct collectors never to place their hands outside of the booth until after the vehicle has come to a complete stop. Another agency changed their procedures such that the collector now validates payment as the last step in processing a transaction so that the gate will stay down and the vehicle will not move until the transaction is complete. In many cases strains can be caused by leaning out of the booth to see oncoming traffic. Depending on the booth design, collectors sometimes noted that leaning was necessitated by advertisements or sunshades on the window making it difficult to see out, or simply by booth/plaza design (e.g., a pillar blocks the view of oncoming traffic). Some agencies have less of a problem with this as their booths have a bumped-out door design which allows collector to see oncoming traffic and to reach vehicles more easily without having to lean quite as far. Others have added a convex mirror adjacent to the window to allow collectors to see vehicles exiting the plaza while looking toward the oncoming traffic. Collectors reported that the mirror reduces twisting motions as they often need to watch vehicles exiting to ensure that the gate lifted properly.
Another concern related to toll worker safety is the possibility of physical assault, either by irate customers or in connection with a robbery. At each site we visited we heard examples of workers being spit upon, having objects thrown at them, and in some cases being shot at. Fear of armed robbery was particularly pronounced in locations where a lone worker might be present - such as at an exit ramp plaza.
While little can be done to entirely eliminate these occurrences, a number of mitigation strategies have been adopted. These include keeping doors locked while in the booth (although some agencies feel that this is a safety hazard preventing emergency egress), periodic cash drops between shifts (to minimize the amount of cash on hand), close relationships with law enforcement, CCTV cameras, and, at one agency, providing collectors with Kevlar vests.
10 The accident and injury data obtained through this study did not include any fatalities and the project team learned of only one fatality from the agency interviews. [ Return to note 10. ]