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Strategies for Improving Safety at Toll Collection Facilities

REDUCING DRIVER CONFUSION AND DRIVER INATTENTION

THE CHALLENGE

Toll plazas are inherently confusing environments. A variety of elements at plazas can cause confusion including merging vehicles, unfamiliar messages on signs, inconsistent lane configurations, and a wide variety of competing visual inputs. These issues are exacerbated by the fact that conditions change from agency to agency, from plaza to plaza, and even by time of day at some plazas. Not surprisingly, during the site visits, driver confusion was frequently cited as one of the primary observed reasons for vehicular crashes. Such confusion contributes to side-swipe collisions, rear-end collisions, vehicle strikes upon plaza infrastructure, and close-calls or collisions with toll workers.

One of the biggest concerns related to driver confusion involves unfamiliar, non-ETC equipped drivers entering into and then stopping in high-speed ETC lanes. Drivers will stop, get out of their vehicles, and cross toll lanes in an attempt to pay the toll. While this situation has improved somewhat over time, it remains a large concern at each of the sites visited in the study.

Beyond this, driver inattention is a significant problem at plazas (e.g., motorists talking on cell phones while driving).15

POTENTIAL MITIGATION STRATEGIES

Clearly Identifying ETC Lanes

Agencies have implemented a number of strategies that aim to direct non-ETC drivers away from ETC lanes in the first place. These include: implementing public education campaigns to familiarize drivers with the concept of ETC; adding signs - for example supplementing "brand" signs such as SunPass with generic signs such as "Pre-Paid Only"; and using specialized lane markings, such as differentiating high-speed ETC lanes with purple paint on the outside edges of the lane (as shown in Figure 28).

Photograph of the approach to a toll plaza where the ETC lanes are labeled with eye-catching paint.
Figure 28. The Use of Pavement Markings To Identify Dedicated-ETC Lanes

In addition to this, several agencies reported using pavement markings to assist drivers with lane selection at the toll plaza. Some agencies paint messages on the pavement in the lanes such as CASH ONLY, or the name of the ETC system (e.g., EZ PASS). Other agencies have painted lane numbers on the pavement to match the lane numbers on the canopy signs, to aid motorists in choosing the proper lane well in advance of the plaza.

Informing Motorists of Changing Conditions

As mentioned earlier, frequently changing conditions at toll plazas also contribute to driver confusion and distraction. These variable conditions include lane closures, changes in lane direction (at some facilities), changes in lane configuration (ETC versus mixed use), and the presence of maintenance activities (scheduled and otherwise). Strategies to combat these particular sources of driver confusion typically center around providing improved traveler information. For example, an increasing number of agencies are employing the use of Variable Message Signs (VMS) upstream of the toll plazas that could be used to warn drivers of unexpected conditions such as incidents and maintenance activities. The NYS Thruway is experimenting with the use of digital signs upstream of the plaza indicating which lane numbers are currently accepting ETC and which are cash or mixed use (see Figure 29).

Photograph of dynamic road sign indicating the lane numbers that have been assigned to ETC transations for the day.
Figure 29. Dynamic Signs Display Current ETC Lane Numbers at a NYS Thruway Plaza

Another agency uses high visibility maintenance trucks and/or flaggers at the end of long, unexpected queues that extend beyond the sight of the plaza. This can be a very effective strategy, but is also resource intensive.

Finally, some agencies with bi-directional lanes that change throughout the day make use of buffer (or unused lanes) between the directions of travel. This can be a cost-effective solution to movable barriers, but offers less protection and may not be feasible in high traffic areas (i.e., no lanes may be available to designate as buffers).

Informing Motorists of Lane Closures

Agencies use a variety of methods for conveying a closed lane to motorists. Some agencies simply close a lane with a traffic cone or gate (some examples are shown in Figures 30 and 31). While this creates a physical barrier to help discourage drivers from entering closed lanes, it can be dangerous for collectors to put the gate into place. In addition to this, some agencies have faced problems with motorists not seeing closed gates. To address this, one agency has installed unique three-foot high orange reflectors on its gates (similar to driveway markers). Since the addition of the reflectors, the agency reported that there has been a significant reduction in the gates being hit. Beyond this, many agencies have signs on their gates to further communicate to motorists that the lane is closed, and to draw attention to the gates. In terms of messages, some use a "LANE CLOSED" sign or a "DO NOT ENTER" sign. One agency used to use a "STOP" sign on a gate, but moved away from this after noticing cars approaching the gate and waiting for it to open. Other agencies have moved away from written signs entirely - feeling that they add to visual clutter and confusion - and now simply employ Red X's or Green arrows to indicate lane closure status that can be changed remotely, thereby reducing worker exposure to vehicles.

Two photos showing how lane closure can be conveyed. One photo shows dynamic signs above the toll booths that can be switched from a 'Lane Open' or type of payment message to a 'Lane Closed' message. The other photo shows a traffic gate with a 'Lane Closed' sign displayed.
Figure 30. Options for Conveying a Closed Lane to Motorists

Photograph of a toll booth with traffic gates lowered to indicate lane closure.
Figure 31. Gates in Use to Indicate that a Lane is Closed

Mitigating Sensory Overload

The final significant source of driver confusion identified in the site visits was simply sensory overload, or the challenge of reading, recognizing, and appropriately acting upon the multitude of messages and signs presented to a driver approaching a plaza. Among the solutions that sites have explored to combat this issue are:

  • Efforts to minimize the number of signs.
  • Movement toward the use of symbols (such as "$," as in Figure 32) in lieu of, or in addition to, words (such as "cash only").
  • Movement toward simplification of messages on signs.
  • The placement of signs at eye level (as opposed to overhead or in-pavement).
  • The use of focus groups to test different sign configurations and messages.
  • The banning of advertising in the vicinity of plazas.

Photo of a sign using the $ symbol to indicate that cash is accepted at all booths.
Figure 32. One Option for Conveying that Cash Is Accepted in All Lanes

Mitigating Driver Inattention

In addition to the various sources of confusion inherent in the design, layout, and operations of plaza facilities, drivers also introduce their own activities that contribute to inattention and distraction. While not unique to toll plazas, many customers engage in cell phone conversations, read maps, and undertake a variety of activities that have been demonstrated to cause driver distraction and crashes on all roadway facilities, not just toll plazas. In addition, a subset of drivers, colloquially referred to as "wavers," undertakes a form of distraction that is unique to plaza facilities. These individuals fail to properly mount their ETC tags and instead hold them up to the windshield, out the window, etc., with little regard to traffic conditions around them. While there is not much that can be done to mitigate against the actions of these individuals, agencies have pursued strategies such as public education campaigns, providing warnings against the practice in billing mail-outs, and instructing toll collectors to look for and discourage the practice if possible.

Providing Advance Information to Motorists

All agencies use advance signing to warn drivers that they are approaching a toll plaza. Specific messages include "TOLL PLAZA AHEAD," "PAY TOLL AHEAD," etc. In addition to these warning signs, some agencies use lane designation signs in advance of the plaza. For example, one agency has a plaza where drivers can either take an Interstate or exit onto a local road immediately after passing through the plaza. After experiencing a number of vehicular accidents immediately downstream of the plaza, the agency has implemented advance signing that directs drivers to the side of the toll plaza where they will need to be depending on their direction of travel downstream of the plaza. Since installing the lane designation signs, the agency has not experienced any accidents downstream of the plaza.

Increasing Conspicuity of Facilities and Workers

Some agencies are installing messages on signs and the pavement at the toll plaza to caution drivers about employee presence in the toll lanes. One agency has installed pedestrian crossing warning signs with flashing amber lights at the beginning of the toll island to caution drivers. Signs are also posted in holders on the front of the bullnose. One of the sign messages used is "SLOW DOWN - PROTECT OUR WORKERS."

Another agency has a program called "Give Them 10" that was started when ETC was introduced. The message is for drivers to slow down to 10 mph for the safety of toll plaza employees. White markings are installed in every lane each spring with the message 10 mph.

Another innovative strategy reported by West Virginia Parkways was the installation of white strobe lighting on the canopies at all toll plazas to highlight the facilities during inclement weather. The agency feels that the strobe lighting has been helpful in ensuring that drivers will see the upcoming plaza in foggy driving conditions.

The same agency reported using maintenance trucks with flashing lights and qualified flagging personnel at the rear of traffic back-ups when the traffic volume stretches beyond sight of the plaza. This technique is used to prevent rear-end collisions at the end of the queue.

Reducing the Incidence of Vehicles Stopping or Backing Up in High-Speed Lanes

Some agencies have deployed mitigation strategies that are aimed at preventing vehicles from stopping in high-speed lanes. For example:

  • Some agencies have installed a tall barrier wall to prevent motorists in high-speed lanes from stopping and crossing to staffed booths.
  • Other agencies have removed their driver violation warning signs - feeling that it is better to lose the toll (or pursue the toll through automated enforcement) than to have a vehicle stop in the high speed lanes.
  • A large number of agencies have added signs instructing drivers "DO NOT STOP" or "DO NOT BACK UP - STAY IN VEHICLE" (as shown in Figure 33).
  • Others have gone so far as to add public address systems to communicate with drivers at unmanned booths so that staff can instruct motorists to stay in their vehicle and to keep moving. However, there is some debate as to the usefulness of this approach owing to noise and the impracticality of constantly monitoring the travel lanes for such situations.

Photo of a brightly painted sign at a toll booth telling customers not to back up, and that a citation for backing up at a toll booth would result in a 2 point summons.
Figure 33. "DO NOT BACK UP" Sign to Reduce Unsafe Motorist Behavior

Strategy Rankings, Effectiveness, and Constraints

Table 7 lists strategies for mitigating safety challenges associated with driver confusion and driver inattention, along with comments on effectiveness, concerns/constraints and ranking.

Table 7. Potential Strategies to Mitigate Safety Challenges Associated with Driver Confusion and Driver Inattention
Strategy Description Rankings from Workshop Participants and Comments on Effectiveness16 Concerns / Constraints
Clearly Identifying ETC Lanes
Supplement brand name signs such as "SunPass" with generic signs such as "Pre-PAID ONLY" to label ETC lanes. In areas with heavy visitor traffic there are concerns that many travelers may not be familiar with local ETC product names (such as EZ Pass or SunPass) and may inadvertently enter ETC lanes as a result.
  • Five of 20 workshop participants selected this solution as a top three strategy.
  • Can add to information overload.
  • Difficult to select the appropriate term, e.g., "Pre-PAID" may not be universally understood by drivers either.
Differentiate ETC lanes from cash or mixed lanes with special pavement markings. A number of agencies, such as the NY State Thruway use unique pavement markings (such as purple paint) to differentiate ETC from cash or mixed lanes.
  • Six of 20 workshop participants selected this solution as a top three strategy. Three of those 6 participants selected it as the third most effective solution.
  • Agencies that have implemented the approach feel that it is effective and have received positive customer feedback on the practice.
  • Maintenance of paint / markings, especially in cold weather environments.
  • Restricts ability to re-configure lanes.
Paint lane numbers on the pavement in advance of the plaza. To provide drivers more time to maneuver toward the appropriate lanes within a plaza some agencies have undertaken the practice of painting lane numbers into the pavement along the approach to a plaza with corresponding numbers over the various booths.
  • Four of 20 workshop participants selected this solution as a top three strategy.
  • Particularly effective in areas where site lines to plaza are compromised (e.g., along curves).
  • Some agencies who have implemented the practice question its effectiveness; however, customers seem to like it (according to satisfaction surveys).
  • Some agencies who have implemented the practice question its effectiveness; however, customers seem to like it (according to satisfaction surveys).
  • Concerns that it may lead to information overload.
Informing Motorists of Changing Conditions
Use variable message signs (VMS) to inform drivers of plaza conditions. An increasing number of agencies are using variable message signs on the mainline to inform drivers of unexpected traffic conditions (e.g., incidents, maintenance, etc.). Few agencies use these signs specifically for plaza conditions.
  • Eight of 20 workshop participants selected this solution as a top three strategy.
  • Effective method of informing travelers of unexpected conditions.
  • Requires active surveillance and management.
  • Expensive to install and maintain.
Use digital signs in advance of plaza to indicate which lanes are currently ETC. For plazas where lane configurations change throughout the day at least one agency has implemented the use of digital signs in advance of the plaza that indicate which lanes are ETC.
  • Seven of 20 workshop participants selected this solution as a top three strategy.
  • Helps to move lane selection decision back to mainline lanes.
  • Can create additional confusion.
  • Must be actively updated.
  • Added maintenance costs and issues.
Position maintenance trucks with flashing lights and flaggers at end of long queues. Use high visibility maintenance trucks and / or flaggers at the end of long, unexpected queues that extend beyond the sight of the plaza.
  • One of 20 workshop participants selected this solution as a top three strategy.
  • Considered to be very effective when implemented, but ranked low by workshop participants.
  • Resource-intensive.
Create a buffer lane between bi-directional traffic where physical barriers do not exist. A number of plazas change the number of bi-directional lanes throughout the day and thus do not have physical separation between the travel directions. The use of a buffer lane (or unused lane) can help to separate these opposing traffic flows.
  • One of 20 workshop participants selected this solution as a top three strategy.
  • Felt to be an effective strategy if traffic demands and plaza capacity supported taking one lane out of operation.
  • Many plazas do not have the excess capacity to support this.
Informing Motorists of Lane Closures
Include signs on gates upstream of the plaza to convey to motorists when a lane is closed. While a number of agencies use no more than a traffic cone to indicate lane closures, others use more conspicuous indicators such as STOP signs, LANE CLOSED signs, large red X signs, etc.
  • Five of 20 workshop participants selected this solution as a top three strategy.
  • Signs are felt to work best in concert with physical gates.
  • Signs may be difficult to affix current gates.
  • May be expensive to retro-fit.
Mitigating Sensory Overload
Determine sign messaging based on feedback from motorists. Make use of surveys, focus groups and other formal feedback mechanisms to design and select sign messages.
  • None of the 20 workshop participants selected this solution as a top three strategy.
  • Costly. 
  • Difficult to capture visitors inputs.
Ban the use of advertisements on or near plazas. Agencies have conflicting policies with regard to advertisements in and around toll plazas, with some even having ads on the booths themselves. This has created questions about information overload and caused a number of agencies to ban such signs.
  • Three of 20 workshop participants selected this solution as a top three strategy.
  • Debates continue as to whether or not such advertisements contribute to unsafe conditions; however, the majority of agencies agree that having fewer signs contributes to increased safety.
  • Banning advertising reduces revenues.
Mitigating Driver Inattention
Conduct public education campaign to reduce electronic tag "wavers." Use billing statements, advertising, etc. to warn people of the possibility that their toll will not register if they wave their ETC tags as opposed to using a proper windshield mount.
  • 1 of 20 workshop participants selected this solution as a top three strategy.
  • Agencies that have undertaken advertising question the effectiveness.
  • Advertising can be costly.
  • General consensus the patrons do not pay attention to such warnings.
Increasing Conspicuity of Facilities and Workers
Use signs to warn drivers about the potential for workers in the roadway. Many agencies use signs such as SLOW DOWN - PROTECT OUR WORKERS or pedestrian crossing signs to protect workers.
  • Five of 20 workshop participants selected this solution as a top three strategy for improving worker safety when accessing toll booths. Four of those 5 selected it as the third most effective solution.17
  • Collectors like them.
  • Adds to visual clutter and driver confusion.
Use white strobe lights at plazas to highlight facilities during inclement weather. A number of agencies use special lighting, such as strobe lighting, to increase the conspicuity of toll plazas, especially during inclement weather such as fog.
  • Three of 20 workshop participants selected this solution as a top three strategy.
  • May be most effective in areas with severe weather such as fog.
  • None identified.
Reducing the Incidence of Vehicles Stopping or Backing Up in High-Speed Lanes
Use a tall barrier wall to prevent motorists in high-speed lanes from stopping and crossing lanes to staffed booths. Drivers who inadvertently enter ETC lanes or whose transponder malfunctions often exit their vehicles and cross lanes to reach staffed booths. The installation of taller barrier walls can help to cut down on this dangerous practice.
  • Seven of 20 workshop participants selected this solution as a top three strategy. Five of those 7 participants selected it as the most effective solution.
  • Agencies that have implemented this practice have found it to be very effective in preventing customers from both crossing lanes and from stopping in the first place.
  • As a by-product, may cut down on rubber-necking.
  • May limit ability to detect incidents and monitor ETC lanes.
Eliminate violation warning signs. Some agencies have eliminated or reduced the conspicuity of toll violation warning signs in ETC lanes to discourage non-ETC drivers from stopping and either backing up or exiting their vehicles to reach a staffed booth.
  • One of 20 workshop participants selected this solution as a top three strategy.
  • Practice may help to reduce unsafe actions, but does not eliminate them.
  • Questions as to effectiveness of approach.
  • Some concerns about legislative consequences of not providing warnings of violation prosecution.
Post "STAY IN VEHICLE" signs at booths. Such signs should help to prevent drivers from exiting their vehicles in ETC lanes and attempting to walk to staffed lanes.
  • Four of 20 workshop participants selected this solution as a top three strategy.
  • Doubts as to the effectiveness of such signs.
  • Relatively low cost.
  • Creates additional sign "clutter."
  • Questions as to whether or not patrons actually read them.
Install a PA system at unmanned booths to enable communication with drivers. In order to address drivers that stop at unmanned booths some agencies have installed public address systems
  • Three of 20 workshop participants selected this solution as a top three strategy.
  • Considered to be very effective by agencies that have implemented.
  • May not be cost-effective.
  • May not work very well in noisy environments.



15 Teamsters Safety & Health Facts: Distracted Driving, Cell Phone Use, and Motor Vehicle Crashes. http://www.teamster.org/resources/sh/factsheets/cellphones.pdf

16 Within this group of strategies, workshop participants were asked to select and rank the top three strategies that they believed to have the greatest potential to mitigate driver confusion and driver inattention. Note that at the workshop, the strategies discussed here were presented in a category entitled "Driver Confusion and Distraction."

17 This strategy was initially categorized with the strategies for improving worker safety when accessing toll booths. As such, it was discussed with that group of strategies during the workshop.


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