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From work zone pace cars to adjustable speed limits, MnDOT exploring options this year

MnDOT will roll out two pilot programs in the coming weeks, designed to slow down speeders in construction zones.

MINNEAPOLIS — More than two years into the pandemic, traffic patterns continue to shift and drivers continue to speed.

Now, with construction season fast approaching, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is prepared to test a couple of ways to reduce speeds in construction zones. One relies on technology, while the other relies on an old fashioned slow down.

"We just need to get everybody through there safely," said Michelle Moser, state work zone engineer for MnDOT.

During a week-long study of a Maple Grove work zone in late 2020, MnDOT found just 36% of drivers obeyed the posted work zone speed limit. But that's not what really surprised Moser.

"I was surprised that, not only were people driving fast, but they were driving 90-plus miles per hour," she said. "And it wasn't just when there wasn't work happening. The highest incidence of that was actually happening during the mid-day."

With the higher speeds leading to an increase in serious work zone crashes, Moser says MnDOT is prepared to take a cue from NASCAR, and try a pace car pilot program. 

"We've dubbed it the Speed Safety Vehicle because we really want to focus on safety," she said. "It's a contractor vehicle that will kind of lead people through the work zone, similar to a pace car. Those are used in caution situations in racing. So this is a caution situation. This is definitely a situation of high risk for motorists and workers."

Moser says the highest risk situations will get priority. The pace cars will only be deployed when, and where, crews are working without concrete barriers to protect them. Though the pilot locations haven't been decided, they will be obvious.

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"There will be signage letting you know that there is a speed safety vehicle in use," Moser said. "That vehicle will be marked with a sign also."

MnDOT's other pilot program will easily be the more popular idea for construction-wary drivers. It's called the Electronic Worker Presence Speed Limit System, which is really just a fancy name for a speed limit sign that can be changed electronically.

Moser: "In a longer work zone you may get situations where work is only happening in a very short area, with the electronic signs we'll be able to vary those speed limits so that, for most of the work zone, you're going at your regular speed; and then - just where workers are present - we'll reduce it down to that work zone speed limit."

Erdahl: "Is that a peace offering to those drivers who get a little frustrated?"

Moser: "Yeah, we don't like to frustrate people, and that's something we think will kind of cut down on the complaints about miles and miles of barrier with no work happening."

She says research from other states shows photo radar cameras are still the most effective way to reduce work zone speeds. While MnDOT is still at least a year away from a speed camera pilot program, Moser says they'll still be keeping tabs on speed in different ways.

"As you see more electronic equipment, know that we're just kind of monitoring (speeds) and trying to target enforcement to the problem areas," she said.

RELATED: Work zone speed cameras on legislature's radar

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