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FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: Traffic cones and barrels save lives

“National Work Zone Awareness Week (NWZAW) is an annual spring campaign held at the start of construction season to encourage safe driving through highway work zones.” NWZAW 2022 began yesterday and runs through April 15. Although the Federal Highway Administration and each of the state departments of transportation want drivers to use extra caution in work zones 24/7/365, NWZAW shines a spotlight on work zone safety. 

FreightWaves Classics will publish a new article on NWZAW each day this week. Here is a link to yesterday’s article.

A Schneider National truck navigates a construction zone. (Photo:
A Schneider National truck navigates a construction zone.

Most drivers are very familiar with orange traffic cones and barrels, two of the more readily identifiable features of road construction areas.

Construction barrels

Construction barrels (known officially as construction “drums” in the United States) are mainstays of many road construction areas. The distinguishing features of construction barrels used nationwide are their alternating white and orange reflective bands. Construction barrels are utilized to alert drivers that they are approaching a work zone and also to safely channel and direct traffic through those construction areas.

The various advantages of construction barrels in or near work zones are highlighted in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The section of the manual that focuses on temporary traffic control includes: “Drums [barrels] are highly visible, have good target value, give the appearance of being formidable obstacles and, therefore, command the respect of road users.”

In terms of the barrels being “formidable obstacles,” prior to the early 1990s, they really were.

Until then, construction crews usually used 55-gallon steel drums to guide traffic through construction areas. Heavy and bulky, the metal drums were difficult for road crews to transport and install. The steel drums were painted orange and white and filled with sand or water to keep them in place. If a vehicle happened to hit a steel construction barrel, it could incur extensive damage and would pose a potentially significant hazard. 

A poster created for the 2012 NWZAW. (Photo:
A poster created for the 2012 NWZAW.

During the 1980s, Dick Dorbin began to develop and helped to popularize plastic construction barrels. His version was formally introduced by Plastic Safety Systems, Inc. in 1992.

Plastic construction barrels are lighter than steel drums, easier to set up and equally sturdy. Moreover, they are safer for both drivers and workers.

Most plastic construction barrels manufactured now include a rubber base that prevents them from tipping over during high winds. Depending on the manufacturer, construction barrels may have a handle at the top so that they can be picked up and carried. Moreover, the handle also allows road crews to install barricade lights on the barrels to increase their visibility. 

The earlier steel 55-gallon drums were phased out during the 1990s; today they are prohibited to be used as traffic control devices in the U.S.

An overturned safety cone was the visual focus of this 2010 NWZAW poster. (Photo:
An overturned safety cone was the visual focus of this 2010 NWZAW poster. (Photo:

The history of safety cones

The First World War began in 1914. It was also the year that the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) was founded and that many credit Charles P. Rudebaker with the introduction of an early version of the traffic cone to alert people to repair work and other potential safety hazards on New York City’s streets and to divert traffic from those areas. 

The earliest versions of the safety devices were very different from today’s plastic cones. The original versions were made of concrete; they could cause significant damage to any vehicle that hit them. 

During the early 1940s a much safer and more familiar version of safety markers were developed. Charles D. Scanlon was a street painter with the Los Angeles Department of Public Works. He developed “a hollow, cone-shaped marker for use as a safety warning on roads and in other public areas” in 1940. Scanlon’s original traffic cone was made of rubber; he sewed together used tire skins.

his 2014 NWZAW poster featured safety cones. (Photo:
This 2014 NWZAW poster featured safety cones.

Because Scanlon’s invention was made of pliable materials, it would prevent major damage to vehicles, but was also “resilient and weighted down enough to withstand heavy winds and other potential types of strong impact.” Scanlon was granted a U.S. Patent for his safety cone in 1943. 

Since then, the use of traffic cones has increased in work zones across the nation after they were included in the MUTCD. Their use increased even more after safety cones were added to the national standards in the Highway Safety Act of 1966.

Whether traffic cones or construction barrels, when you see these they are signs of road construction. Slow down, pay attention and drive safely!

The FREIGHTWAVES TOP 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes Schneider (No. 7).