They’re the signs motorists loathe: the orange diamond-shaped ones that tell you that there is road work ahead. And at this time of the year, drivers can find them everywhere, on local streets, city and county roads, and mainline highways and freeways.

Static and digital roadside signs conveying minimal information often are the only notice to warn motorists approaching a construction zone to slow down and be cautious. Drivers get so used to seeing the signs that they don’t pay attention to them and behave as if all work zones are the same, said Chen-Fu Liao, a senior systems engineer at the University of Minnesota’s Traffic Observatory.

What if there were a better way to alert drivers and get their attention?

This summer Liao and a research team are developing and testing the Work Zone Alert app, which would deliver messages directly to drivers in their vehicles through their smartphones or vehicle’s infotainment system.

“We see so many signs on the highways, we see it but it does not register,” Liao said. “We could put information inside the vehicle and have it tailored to me so I know I need to pay attention.”

Here is how it works: A Bluetooth low-energy tag is attached to a construction barrel or sign posts in a work zone. As a driver nears the tag, the app would pick up an audio message and speak it to the driver. Messages might say things like “Road goes from two lanes to one” or “workers on site in 1,000 feet.”

“Work zones are dynamic and can be different tomorrow than they are today,” Liao said. “We want to provide timely information to drivers so they can be more aware of what is coming up: personal information to make it seem relevant.”

The first testing phase occurred this spring in the I-94 construction zone between Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center. Results showed the app can pick up the signal from 400 to 500 feet away in a variety of conditions, including heavy traffic, inclement weather and by drivers going as fast as 70 miles per hour. In a second phase of testing, MnDOT will recruit employees and selected commuters to try the app during their daily drives to see how they use it and how helpful it is, Liao said.

Last year, 1,684 crashes occurred in Minnesota work zones leading to 10 deaths, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. The leading cause: driver inattention.

With safety officials constantly pleading with us to not be on our phones while driving, why would MnDOT even consider using smartphones to alert drivers about work zones?

Because they don’t have to look down at their phones or at static or changeable message signs outside their vehicles, said Ken Johnson with MnDOT’s Office of Traffic, Safety and Technology. “If it’s audible, they don’t have to read anything,” he said.

The U’s Human First Lab found those who relied on audio from their phone had less mental workload. They also performed better when changing lanes and holding their speed, and they remembered audio messages better than drivers who read road signs.

MnDOT still must work out a deal with an app developer and answer questions such as how loud messages should play and how to incorporate the app into its 511 traveler information website without compromising driver safety.

“The theory is that it does not increase distracted driving,” Johnson said. “It does have some promise. We like the idea a lot.”


Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.