Pilot cars can help put the brakes on traffic speeding through roadwork zones, a CARRS-Q study has found.

Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr Ashim Debnath said that roadwork zones can be highly dangerous for the men and women on the job, as well as passing motorists, with excessive speed a major issue.

It is estimated that 50 deaths and 750 injuries result from road traffic crashes annually in Australian roadwork zones.

“High rates of non-compliance with posted speed limits indicate that motorists simply don’t appreciate the risks of the close proximity of workers and large volumes of traffic, the inherent dangers of the site, and the presence of heavy machinery.

“Slowing traffic down is essential to safety,” Dr Debnath said, “and a pilot car, which guides a single lane stream of traffic through a worksite, can effectively do this.”

The study was conducted over a 5 day period in a 4.1km roadwork zone on the Bruce Highway in Queensland, where road resurfacing required two lanes of two-way traffic to be merged into a single alternating lane through the site.

Vehicle speeds were measured continuously for the 5 day period, showing the proportion of vehicles speeding through the site was reduced when the pilot car was in use, particularly those motorists travelling at 10 km/h or more above the posted limit.

Average speeds were reduced in the work area, however not downstream of the site where normal highway conditions were returned.

Motorists were more likely to speed during the day, under a 40km/h limit, when traffic volumes were higher and when there were larger gaps in the traffic stream.

Medium-sized vehicles, like buses and trucks without any trailers, were less likely to speed in the presence of a pilot car than light vehicles, such as cars, utilities and light vans.

Although pilot car operation did not bring the average speed down to the posted limit, it effectively reduced the number of vehicles traveling at particularly risky speeds.

Findings of the study indicate that a pilot car has greater effects on reducing speeds of vehicles immediately following it, and less of an effect on those which are further behind in the traffic stream from the pilot car.

“Roadworks are a fact of life, especially in Queensland with its large road network and challenging weather events,” Dr Debnath said.

“Improving safety at road works and reducing motorist frustration is important.

“Motorists drive and ride at speeds they perceive to be suitable, or with which they are comfortable, regardless of the posted limits.”

Despite many studies evaluating the effectiveness of speed control measures in roadwork zones, this is the first time the speed reduction potential of pilot car operation has been scientifically examined.

“A pilot car that assumes control of the total traffic speed can be effective at slowing traffic flow and achieving individual compliance, as long as it is obeying the posted limit,” Dr Debnath said.

The CARRS-Q study team includes Dr Ashim Debnath, Dr Ross Blackman, and Professor Narelle Haworth (Chief Investigator).

The study is part of a 3-year research program to improve roadworker safety and is funded by the Australian Research Council with Leighton Contractors, GHD, the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads, and the Australian Workers Union.

The multidisciplinary project involves investigating the real and perceived dangers at roadworks, strengthening policies and practices for roadworker safety, testing initiatives to improve driver behaviour at roadworks, and developing models of safety management in complex systems that span different regulatory frameworks.