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Mark Bennett B-Sides

July 9, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Making road work a barrel of fun for drivers

TERRE HAUTE — We’re lucky orange barrels can’t talk.

They see our dark side.

Like 3-foot-tall, striped, cylindrical Rodney Dangerfields lining the roadways, they get no respect as we humans drive by in our cars and trucks. Orange barrels make us slow down and merge into single-file lines, like we did in kindergarten. They frustrate us. We lose our temper and say things. An old kindergarten teacher would probably wash out our mouths with soap, if she were riding shotgun in the passenger seat.

It’s orange barrel season in Indiana. They’re as plentiful as dandelions, from U.S. 41 to U.S. 40, Interstate 70 and Indiana 42, guiding motorists around road construction and repair projects. In neighboring Michigan, residents jokingly refer to orange barrels as the state flower, while Ohioans call the barrels their unofficial state symbol. Indiana has its share, too.

As Heywood Banks’ song on the “Bob & Tom Show” laments, “Orange barrels, orange barrels, everywhere I see; orange barrels, orange barrels, looking back at me.”

Maybe it’s time to see orange barrels from their side.

“I always tell people who complain about their presence to think of them as so much more than just an orange barrel or a nuisance, but think of them as a sign of your tax dollars at work,” said Kelly Hollatz, president of Five Star Safety, a Cincinnati-based supplier of barrels and other highway safety equipment to firms in Indiana and other states.

This year, the Indiana Department of Transportation will oversee $800 million worth of road construction projects, according to Debbie Calder, communications director for INDOT’s Crawfordsville district. The work hits a peak during the warmer, drier weather of summer. So the private contractors and sub-contractors hired by the state to perform the tasks roll out the barrels.

Those devices — known as “channelizers” in the road products industry — serve a crucial purpose.

“That’s the safety barrier between the traffic and the people who work on the roads, so they’re very important,” said Bob Montel, safety manager for Reith-Riley Construction, a firm based in Goshen that handles highway projects as a private contractor for the state.

The barrels, which range in cost from $40 to $120, represent a technological evolution.

The plastic drums measure a minimum of 36 inches tall and 18 inches wide, according to federal guidelines, ringed with four 6-inch bands of high-intensity “reflective prismatic sheeting” — those glowing orange and white stripes, said Kenny Kolberg, road safety consultant for Plastic Safety Systems Inc., a Cleveland company that makes nearly 200,000 orange barrels a year, including many used in Indiana. The lightweight barrels are stabilized by a rubber collar — made from the recycled sidewalls of blown-out semi tires, an innovation created in the 1980s by Plastic Safety Systems founder and CEO David Cowan. They’re designed to be “deformable” if struck by a veering vehicle, yet durable. They’re tested for “crash-worthiness,” visibility and other federal requirements.

“There’s a lot that goes into those barrels that the average person doesn’t know,” said Roger Melancon, vice president of sales for The Hoosier Co., an Indianapolis firm that specializes in highway and workzone safety systems.

The high-density polyethylene barrels replaced 55-gallon steel barrels, which faded from use by the 1990s, and “smudge pots” — kerosene-burning steel balls — common in the 1970s. With a handle at their enclosed tops, the barrels are easier to maneuver and place for construction workers. The tire stabilizer collars, which weigh 25 to 40 pounds, can be dropped over the barrels, instead of being secured with sandbags as in the past.

In the 21st century, about a dozen manufacturers produce an estimated 750,000 orange barrels per year, according to various industry media reports. But the drums are just one of a growing number of tools in the road construction safety process. Contractors also use flashing message boards, signs, modifications to existing signs, barricades, flashing arrow boards and concrete barriers.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to catch the attention of increasingly distracted drivers,” said Will Wingfield, INDOT spokesman.

The driver distractions list mushroomed in the digital age. It includes talking on cellphones, texting and scanning a tablet, in addition to eating, listening to music and conversing or arguing with passengers. In Indiana, work-zone collisions rose from 3,981 in 2008 to 4,683 in 2010, before dropping to 3,498 in 2012, according to the latest Indiana State Police statistics. In May, two highway construction workers were killed when a pickup truck crashed into them as they cleaned up a work zone on Interstate 69 near Fishers, just minutes from the end of their shifts.

One of the road safety industry’s latest attention-grabbing inventions is a temporary, portable rubber rumble strip. It’s placed in the lane of a highway that will close in the distance ahead — a sensory heads-up for drivers to merge and slow down. The strips, accompanied by signs, arrows and barrels, are catching on in multiple states, said Kolberg, whose company makes those rubber RoadQuake2 strips.

Within a week, Reith-Riley plans to deploy temporary rumble strips at its construction site on I-70 in Clay County, Montel said. Perhaps soon, portable, temporary rumble strips will be as ubiquitous as orange barrels. In the meantime, let’s pay attention to both.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or

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