Flagging operations for temporary traffic control (be it work zones, parades, block parties, or bike and running races) is serious business and the good news is that we collectively take it far more seriously than we used to. The best local agencies, contractors, and utilities put temporary traffic control planning and support of flaggers on an even plane with the work or event itself. But there is considerable room for improvement and two keys are certified training of flagging personnel and a strong, positive culture of safety from management that makes temporary traffic control a focus area, rather than an afterthought.
When normal traffic flow is interrupted, passive temporary traffic control devices (concrete barriers, drums, cones, signs) can often be deployed by themselves. But when flaggers are needed, they are an essential piece of the safety puzzle for vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, and workers. As such, they become the gateway for the operation and can be the difference between multi-modal road users understanding how to navigate the interruption versus confusion that can lead to injury and even death.
The National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse assembles data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the US Department of Transportation, and others. For 2021, they estimate that there were 106,000 total work zone crashes resulting in 42,000 injuries and 956 fatalities (of which 164 were pedestrians). Unfortunately, these numbers are not declining; they are rising. Road workers saw 108 fatalities in 2021. More than 45% of them were on foot and struck by vehicles. And yes, speeding was a factor in 32% of work zone fatalities in 2021.
Many temporary traffic control designs, of course, rely on passive devices to manage drivers around the work area (or event), but where flagging personnel are part of the active management of the area, a well-trained, diligent, attentive, and management-supported flagger can be instrumental in avoiding fatalities and injury for the road user and the workers themselves. So, we should train flaggers, manage and support them well, and insist that they approach their work with the attention and seriousness that we know can make a difference in safety for all involved.
Part 6E of the Delaware Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) provides the “shoulds, shalls, and mays” for flagger control on all Delaware roads open to the public. The MUTCD encourages that all flaggers be trained in safe traffic control practices as well as public contact techniques. In addition, all flaggers on state-maintained roadways shall be certified and must carry their flagger certification card and photo identification on their person. This is the best practice for all temporary traffic control situations involving flaggers, regardless of road type.
The Delaware Department of Transportation details acceptable flagger certification programs in a memorandum on the Delaware MUTCD website. There are five options and the most commonly used is the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) Flagger Certification Program. There are a variety of ways to access an ATSSA class for your personnel and the Delaware T2/LTAP Center is available to help contractors, utilities, consultants, and other private sector groups find one of those. For any local agency personnel in Delaware, we offer the ATSSA certification class several times per year for a reduced fee that covers the cost of the ATSSA required training materials and registration.
We encourage all local agencies to provide flagger certification training for all personnel who may even potentially be called upon to be a flagger, as well as personnel in management or design for a better understanding of work zone safety. Elected officials have also benefited from the class.
The ATSSA flagger certification class covers essential topics, such as requirements for high-visibility safety apparel, the proper use of the preferred hand-signaling devices (the STOP/SLOW paddle), safe positions for flaggers, work zone design basics, handling emergency vehicles and challenging motorists, dedicated flagger station lighting for nighttime operations, and best practices for the safety of the flagger, workers or event attendees, and multi-modal road users.
To successfully complete the course and receive a flagger certification card (good for four years), students must complete a 25 question (open book) test and demonstrate proficiency with proper hand signaling. Some students are test-wary and worry that they may have difficulty, but the course is taught in such a way that students who are engaged throughout the materials very rarely have any difficulty. Students can miss up to seven questions on the exam, which has very little in the way of “gotcha” questions. The course is not designed to frustrate students; it is designed to make them better flaggers.
Serious-minded and certified flaggers are just the beginning. Every interruption of normal traffic for construction, maintenance, emergency response, utility work, unloading of equipment/materials, or community events should be thought out in advance to ensure it is as safe as possible for the workers or event attendees as well as motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians that must navigate around the interruption. Crew leaders, supervisors, and all other levels of management should actively promote and champion a culture of safety, making it as high a priority as the work or event itself. Flaggers should be well-supported (they need breaks, too) and supervised. Good flagging should be publicly celebrated, while flaggers that fail to practice their craft seriously should be privately counseled and, where necessary, receive refresher training.
Injuries and fatalities involving temporary traffic control need not be inevitable. We cannot fully control multi-modal road users by ourselves, but we can give them the information and direction to make correct decisions and safely navigate the work zone or event detour. If we focus on those things within our control, we can make significant improvements in the safety of these settings for our own workforce and multi-modal road users.
The Delaware T2/LTAP Center’s Municipal Engineering Circuit Rider is intended to provide technical assistance and training to local agencies and so if you have work zone safety concerns or other transportation issues, contact Matt Carter at firstname.lastname@example.org or (302) 831-7236.