DOT once again using "intelligent work zones" to make road repairs safer

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG TV9)- Drivers entering construction zones in Iowa this season will once again find some of the work place warning signs a lot smarter than others.

An "intelligent work zone" sign at a work zone near Des Moines flashes different messages for motorists based on traffic flow detected automatically by sensors. Photo from: Iowa DOT

It’s called an “intelligent work zone.” And the Iowa Department of Transportation’s (DOT) goal is to better protect both highway workers and motorists. And it’s something you’ll only see at projects on the most heavily-traveled roadways.

The old fashioned static construction signs typically say something like “road work ahead.”

But in 30 locations, out of more than 500 work zones planned this year, the intelligent work zone warnings will give drivers a lot more information.

The difference is sensor platforms places ahead of the work area—either buried under the road or radar-like units in small trailers.

Those sensors can count cars, determine if traffic is slowing or stopped due to construction and then flash the appropriate message to a portable warning sign ahead of the work zone. Sometimes the signs will warn drivers to switch lanes at other times it will alert travelers to traffic at a standstill.

Doug McDonald, a district construction engineer with the DOT, says it’s all done automatically and in real time.

“It prevents those secondary accident back where you have traffic starting to slow down…and if the signs far enough back it gives people a warning there’s something going on ahead,” McDonald said.

While the intelligent work zone system can do the job by itself, every location is also monitored at a central DOT office in Ankeny. If workers see something happening, either from sensor data or work zone highway cameras, they can do something about it.

Cathy Cutler, an Iowa DOT transportation planner, says it allows the transportation department to respond faster.

“Their purpose is to figure out what’s going on, light up additional warning boards, call in the highway helper if it’s a stranded motorist or if they perhaps need to get law enforcement on the scene because there’s been a crash they can do that,” she said.

And whether it’s the permanent highway signs, or portable ones set up at work zones, DOT planners say everything is designed to together to make construction zones both smarter and safer.