A stretch of U.S 2 in Snohomish County, just west of Monroe, Wash., is playing guinea pig this spring in the battle to improve highway work zone safety. There, a new device called the roboflagger has been keeping traffic in line at night while crews install guardrails along 1.2 miles of narrow causeway.
A quick drive through the work zone makes it immediately obvious why the Washington State Department of Transportation chose the guardrail project, named "U.S. 2: French Creek to Farm Road," to see what the roboflagger can do. It's a straight stretch of two-lane, 55-mph highway with steep drop-offs on either side of narrow shoulders — just the kind of dangerous place where flaggers should qualify for combat pay, especially when they work at night.
Remotely controlled by a human flagger behind traffic safety barriers, the automated flagging device features red and yellow lights and a gate arm that lifts and lowers. The roboflagger keeps human flaggers safe by removing them from the direct line of traffic, according to the WSDOT.
Manufactured by a Portland company, First Call Flagging Inc., the roboflagger is a slick device. The lights and arm are powered by batteries that are recharged during the day by a solar panel mounted on top of the machine. The light tower and direction sign fold down while the arm is stowed for towing.
WSDOT specified the use of two roboflaggers on the project — one for each end of the work zone. Maintenance crews have tested the roboflagger on roadways around Tacoma, but this was its first use on a construction project.
"This is a great project for us to test out the roboflagger," said Carl Barker, WSDOT assistant project engineer. "We're working at night, when visibility is low, and we're alternating traffic on a two-lane highway. We'll be able to see how the roboflagger works in these conditions, and how drivers and our crews respond to it."
The early reports were encouraging. When I visited the project after the roboflagger had been operating for several nights, flaggers for the contractor Dirt and Aggregate Interchange of Fairview, Ore., told me they were very impressed with the machine.
"It's an awesome piece of machinery," one of them told me.
Dangerous work zones are a real concern for WSDOT. Between 1999 and 2005, there were 47 work zone deaths in Washington and 4,444 work zone injuries. Speeding and inattentive driving are the two major reasons for work zone collisions, and flaggers are the most at-risk workers, WSDOT says.
It may not wear armor and tear up the bad guys like cyborg Peter Weller in the 1987 movie Robocop, but the roboflagger seems to have a role to play in keeping highway workers safe while they do their jobs. Look for it soon in a work zone near you.