Designing Out Risk

Every day, the UK's roadworkers put themselves at enormous personal risk, as they strive to maintain and improve our strategic and local road networks. Not only do they face the significant physical threat posed by vehicular incursions into work zones, but alarmingly also the prospect of physiological and psychological abuse at the hands of road users.

Long-term effects of abuse

While road accidents and assaults pose an immediate physical threat, the emotional scars of abuse can take far longer to heal, causing long-term damage to mental health. This is particularly worrying, given the sector's predominantly male workforce and the preponderance of male suicides; according to the Office for National Statistics, in 2021 men accounted for around 75% of incidents1.

The data around the dangers faced by roadworkers is sobering and paints a disturbing picture of an increasingly perilous working environment. In 2020, the National Highways Respect our Roadworkers report noted a staggering 6,500 incursions over the previous three years - equating to 175 per month - and a 10% year-on-year increase in roadworker abuse between 2019 and 202022.

Tackling the problem

A growing number of campaigns have been initiated to try to tackle the problem, ranging from the national Stamp it Out initiative led by the Department for Transport and Transport Scotland to local projects like Birmingham City Council and Birmingham Highways Ltd's Expect Respect. The latter was launched in June in response to a shocking 465 incidences of roadworker abuse in the city over the last three years3.

There has been a gradual rise in the use of body worn cameras to try to dissuade potential abusers from attacking road workers, although some believe that this kind of equipment may sometimes encourage aggressive behaviour, ultimately serving to escalate rather than de-escalate potentially violent situations.

Designing out risk

Meanwhile, manufacturers of portable and temporary ITS (intelligent transport system) solutions are taking a more proactive approach, concentrating on "designing out risk". Traditionally, technology has focused on trying to prevent, monitor and record incursions using electronic work zone protection barriers and CCTV cameras. Yet the latest wave of products minimise the amount of time that road workers need to spend on site in the first place.

Driven predominantly by the need to improve environmental sustainability throughout the sector, a growing range of solar-powered equipment such as VMS (variable message signs) and traffic signals extend battery cycles, reducing not only energy consumption but also the frequency of exchanges and therefore the number of site visits required too.

Operating from a position of safety

We're also seeing an increase in the availability of products that may be operated from a position of safety rather than in live traffic scenarios, ranging from stop/go signs to remote controlled traffic signals. Some traffic lights incorporate advanced telematics devices, empowering operations managers to check battery charge levels and functionality remotely, enabling them to identify exactly when batteries need to be exchanged or serviced, again keeping site visits to a minimum.

Adaptive Detection Technology too is playing an increasing role in proactively safeguarding road workers, with traffic signals now operating to timings that respond to the actual flow of traffic rather than set phases, safely accommodating the slowest construction vehicles, without compromising on the overall efficiency of traffic flow.

Promoting safety with a proactive approach

Roadworker safety is a major ongoing concern throughout the traffic management chain - from contractors and subcontractors to their local authority customers and National Highways – but by taking a more proactive approach and stipulating in permits the use of technology that designs out risk by minimising the amount of time that teams need to spend in live traffic lanes, organisations can promote the safety of this most essential workforce and help to reverse the horrific statistics.

Iain McDonald is Business Development Director at SRL Traffic Systems, Europe's largest traffic light manufacturer and hirer.

1 Office for National Statistics - Suicides in England and Wales: 2021 Registrations:

2 National Highways - Respect our Roadworkers:

3 Birmingham City Council - Expect Respect: