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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Focus > March 2001 > Lessons Learned from European Work Zones
March 2001Publication Number: FHWA-RD-01-062

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Lessons Learned from European Work Zones

With work zone fatalities increasing from 658 in 1997 to 868 in 1999, the need for improved work zone safety is more evident than ever. To get a first-hand look at how other countries manage the flow of traffic through work zones, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) organized a May 1999 scanning tour of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Scotland, and France. The knowledge gained on this trip is highlighted in a new report available from FHWA, Methods and Procedures to Reduce Motorist Delays in European Work Zones (Publication No. FHWA-PL-01-001).

The ultimate objectives of the scanning tour team, led by Don Steinke of FHWA and Len Sanderson of the North Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT), were to improve highway construction and maintenance operations, reduce motorist's delays, and increase worker and motorist safety. The team members set off to accomplish these objectives by uncovering new methods already in use and identifying potential areas for research. "There are always opportunities to learn by looking at what others are doing," said team member Joe Wilkerson of FHWA. "The trip confirmed some of the things we have been trying to do and showed us some new ideas."

During the tour, the team members visited construction and maintenance sites and met with highway agency representatives. They found that most of the countries emphasize shorter construction periods and even encourage contract proposals that minimize project duration. There are incentives provided for work completed ahead of schedule, and disincentives for contractors that exceed the agreed upon completion date.

In all five countries, the tour members observed ambitious public outreach programs aimed at communicating with motorists both before and during project and maintenance work. German work zones, for example, are announced by "We Build for You" signs. The signs state the reason for the roadwork and list the duration and length of the work zone. France, meanwhile, distributes leaflets on scheduled roadwork to motorists in neighboring countries, as many of these individuals travel on French highways to vacation destinations. France also distributes 11 million free calendars each year that show when and where road projects are scheduled, as well as free roadmaps detailing recommended alternative routes to take while the projects are underway.

trucks on a highway.

On this German road, lanes have been narrowed prior to reaching a work zone area, allowing the highway agency to keep more lanes open.

"I was impressed with the customer focus, particularly the amount of attention paid to how their projects may impact the motorist and then the tools that they have available to manage or reduce the delays and improve safety," says team member John Conrad, then with the Washington State DOT. "In the U.S., we may tell the motorist 'delays ahead,' while in Europe they provide travel time estimates to well-known junctions. I would like to see us test some of the work zone devices and equipment being used in Europe."

Much information is delivered to motorists by signage not frequently used on American highways. For example, the European countries use clearly marked alternate route signs; numerous variable message signs; and overhead signs, which are considered harder for motorists to overlook, to relay pertinent traffic information.

Symbols/pictograms, which are believed to be easier to recognize than text, are also frequently used, particularly in areas where drivers come from many different countries and may not speak the native language. The Europeans consider these signs to be more effective than the common static "Work Zone Ahead" signs used on U.S. roadways. The team also found close coordination between the public-sector agencies and private-sector organizations involved in roadway work. This helps to ensure that all necessary road maintenance projects in one area, such as guardrail maintenance, bridge repairs, and pavement surface treatments, are scheduled concurrently, thus maximizing the improvements to the roads and minimizing the inconvenience to motorists.

Another strategy used to minimize work zone traffic delays in Europe is the narrowing of lanes, which eliminates the need for closing a lane and allows the flow of traffic to continue through work zones. A study done by the German highway agency found that narrow lanes also have a slowing effect on speed.

All of the countries visited require that the design and maintenance of roadways be done with an eye toward the future. This might mean, for example, constructing road shoulders that can also serve as an extra lane while maintenance is being performed.

Quality control and quality assurance programs are also effectively used in the five countries to improve worker safety. For example, to improve work zone safety, Scotland employs an independent evaluator to conduct safety audits, while French highway agencies construct job-specific traffic control plans, which can then be used by contractors to fit their needs.

Finally, the team members found an overall emphasis on and encouragement for innovation in the transportation community. The Netherlands, for example, has started a "Roads to the Future" program, with 14 pilot projects underway. Among the projects is one focused on carrying out maintenance work without creating obstructions to traffic.

The team recommends investigating all of the above methods for possible use on U.S. highways. A more indepth discussion of the experiences and findings of the scanning tour can be found in the team's report, which is available on the Web at www.international.fhwa.dot.gov. To obtain a printed copy of the report, contact Hana Maier at FHWA, 202-366-6003 (email: international@fhwa.dot.gov). For more information on using innovative work zone strategies, contact Phillip Ditzler at FHWA, 202-366-0855 (fax: 202-366-3225; email: phillip.ditzler@fhwa.dot.gov).

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Updated: 04/07/2011

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