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Robot work ahead

Oregon Department of Transportation road crews performing bridge work in Douglas County this week have been aided by a new mechanized co-worker that drivers should start seeing in southwest Oregon work zones on a more regular basis.

“Automated flagger assistance devices” are essentially leveled-up traffic signals with an arm that rises and falls to start and stop work zone traffic as needed. It has red and yellow light signals to indicate when to stop and go slowly. Placed at each end of a work zone, each $25,000 device is intended to be a safety solution, keeping traditional flaggers, who operate the stations via remote control, off the roadway.

“We’re going to be looking at locations where this makes the most sense,” said ODOT public information officer Dan Latham. “We’re also going to watch what happens this week and take notes and make any changes as necessary.”

The devices aren’t new. They have been used for nearly a decade in Eastern and Central Oregon, ODOT officials said. ODOT’s goal is to have three to five in the next five years for the southwest Oregon region, which includes Jackson, Josephine, Douglas, Coos and Curry counties. Statewide, there are about a dozen, though as many as 30 could soon be put to work within the next five years, Latham said.

It’s designed to get “traditional” flaggers off the roadside and put them in a safer spot. In June 2019, a flagger working on Highway 140 in Klamath County died after being struck by a vehicle. From 2014 to 2018, four Oregon road workers struck by vehicles died, with one severely injured, according to ODOT data. The data account for all road workers, not just flaggers.

“It’s a safety feature for the most part,” ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming said of the automated flaggers. “It keeps flaggers out of the way of traffic.”

This week the flagging systems were used in an area between Scottsburg and Sutherlin during work on Oregon Highway 38 at Weatherly Creek and Paradise Creek, and on Oregon Highway 138, the Elkton-Sutherlin Highway, at the Umpqua River Bridge, ODOT reported. The systems also have been used on the McCullough Memorial Bridge in North Bend, though that presented some challenges.

“Because it’s such a long bridge, the visibility of the person operating the flagging system wasn’t ideal,” Latham said, adding the mechanized flaggers are better suited to shorter work zones. “The bridges that we’re working on Highway 38 and 138 are fairly short. The person operating both stations can see both ends very clearly.”

Leaming added that the devices would not be used on freeway work, such as the $2 million project on the Homestead Bridges near Rogue River, slated to begin this spring.

“We have used portable signals before, which are a variation of (the automated flagger),” Leaming said. “For instance, we used portable signals on the Greensprings Highway when we did that slide closure a couple years ago. This is a variation of the portable signal, only in this case, there’s a person off to the side who’s controlling the remote flagger.”

Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanPfeil.

odot photoThe Oregon Department of Transportation plans to increase its use of automated flagger assistance devices in road work zones.