Drivers not paying attention — such as answering a phone call, a text message, or being distracted by a passenger — for any length of time are 29 times more likely to be involved in a collision or near-collision in a highway work zone, according to new research by the University of Missouri (MU).

The results from the study could provide recommendations on “behavioral countermeasures” to state transportation agencies and the Federal Highway Administration, which are implementing countermeasures to help decrease injuries and fatalities in highway work zones. They could also be used when developing new technology, such as driverless vehicles.

“Prior to our study, researchers analyzed data on work zone safety by looking at one checkbox among 70-80 different fields on a police officer’s crash report to see if the crash occurred inside a work zone,” said Praveen Edara, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the MU College of Engineering. “Unfortunately, crash reports do not include detailed information about driver behavior prior to a crash. What’s unique about our research project is that we used naturalistic driving study data that provides information about how driver, vehicle, roadway and environmental factors contribute to a crash. In other words, we reconstructed a driver’s actions and the surrounding environment prior to the crash from a firsthand account.”

The study used data from the Transportation Research Board’s second Strategic Highway Research Program’s Naturalistic Driving Study. During 2006 – 2015, researchers collected data from more than 3,000 drivers traveling more than 50 million miles. With this information, researchers were able to see a detailed firsthand account of a driver’s interaction with the vehicle, roadway and surrounding environment.

The study, Risk Factors in Work Zone Safety Events: A Naturalistic Driving Study Analysis, is published in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board.