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Federal Highway Administration / Publications / Focus / April 1996

Accelerating Infrastructure Innovations

Publication Number: FHWA-SA-96-015
Date: April 1996

Pennsylvania Shines New Light on Flagging

The temporary work zone is an inherently dangerous place for maintenance crews. Concerned about worker safety, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (DOT) decided to experiment with the flashing stop/slow paddle, which was designed under the Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP) as a tool for increasing safety in highway work zones.

Flashing stop/slow paddles, available from several manufacturers and approved in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), feature a high-powered flashing light that flaggers can turn on to get drivers' attention when they fail to heed instructions to stop or slow down. The idea is to give flaggers another tool for drawing a motorist's attention to the stop/slow paddle and away from the cellular phone, CD player, passing scenery, or other distractions. The flashing lights visually scream "pay attention," making the driver more aware of the work crew and thus reducing the likelihood of an accident.

In the spring of 1995, the Pennsylvania DOT purchased 66 flashing stop/slow paddles from 3 manufacturers and distributed 2 of each model to a work crew in each district. The models tested were the A/C Enterprise Strobe Safety Sign; the Columbia Safety Sign Corporation Stop/Slow Paddle; and the Detronics Ltd. TES 336, distributed by Graham-Migletz.

Pennsylvania DOT work crews used the flashing stop/slow paddles during normal maintenance operations at more than 300 work sites on 2-lane, 2-way highways with varying traffic loads and speeds ranging from 57 km/h (35 mi/h) to 89 km/h (55 mi/h). After testing each manufacturer's flashing stop/slow paddle for 45 days, flaggers and crew chiefs were interviewed to determine whether they felt the devices were effective in getting drivers' attention, whether the devices improved their sense of protection, and whether they were comfortable using the flashing paddles.

Pennsylvania DOT work crews gave high marks to the flashing stop/slow paddle. Virtually every flagger said the paddles got drivers' attention and that motorists slowed down for the crew. Most of the flaggers found that the lights did their job, getting the correct response from drivers. Best of all, work crews felt better protected from careless drivers. In short, the flashing paddles were considerably more effective than conventional stop/slow paddles.

Moreover, flaggers liked using the flashing stop/slow paddles. Richard J. Sesny of the Pennsylvania DOT reports that the crews' acceptance of the paddles "is important, because if the devices are easy to use, that will encourage the work crews to use the devices even more effectively."

While effective, the devices were not without scattered reliability and durability problems. But the response from the manufacturers shows that there can be a strong and cooperative relationship between vendors and State transportation departments.

For example, in its testing of the A/C Enterprise flashing stop/slow paddle, the Pennsylvania DOT noted that several sign faces separated from the handles. Since the test, the company has made improvements. "We redesigned the handle to withstand anything these guys can dish out," says A/C Enterprise's Monte Arehart, observing that work crews can be quite hard on their equipment.

Columbia Safety Sign Corporation's paddle wasn't without problems of its own, but the company says they're a thing of the past. The firm has found a much-improved replacement for the battery contacts and solenoids it once used, which Pennsylvania crews reported often failed to maintain good electrical contacts, keeping the signs from lighting.

"All of us are really growing into this industry and finding out what works," says Columbia Safety Sign's John Valdez of the process of continually improving products to meet the needs of the customer. Jim Migletz of Graham-Migletz agrees that this process is important, noting that his company has upgraded its current model four times since the prototype was evaluated under SHRP. Likewise, A/C Enterprise is talking with work crews about possible improvements to its line.

Manufacturers are also willing to meet the individual needs of different states. Graham-Migletz, for example, offers signs in four different sheeting materials, while Columbia Safety Sign has produced a modified sign specifically for the State of Oregon.

The companies are united in their interest in worker safety. A/C Enterprise uses plastic staffs to prevent injury if the sign touches a live electric line. Valdez of Columbia Safety Sign will coordinate with workers' compensation insurers to get them to encourage contractors to buy flashing stop/slow paddles. And Graham-Migletz will stay with signs made of the same highly reflective sheeting as used for highway signs, even though Pennsylvania DOT worried that the surface could be scratched. The industry's attitude is well summarized by A/C Enterprise's Arehart: "If a flashing stop/slow paddle saves one life, it's served its purpose."

In the end, Pennsylvania agreed. Pennsylvania DOT has approved flashing stop/slow paddles for use by its workers.

For more information, contact Doug Tomlinson, Pennsylvania DOT, 717-787-3657 (fax: 717-787-9507) or Peter Hatzi, FHWA, 202-366-8036 (fax: 202-366-7909).

Updated: 06/27/2017
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