Occupational Safety and Health Administration OSHA

6C. Temporary Traffic Control Elements


Traffic Control Plans (TCP's) play a vital role in providing continuity of safe and efficient traffic flow, to the extent interruptions in normal flow are necessary for temporary traffic control operations or other events that must temporarily disrupt normal traffic flow. Important auxiliary provisions that cannot conveniently be specified on project plans can easily be incorporated into Special Provisions within the TCP.

A TCP describes traffic controls to be used for facilitating vehicle and pedestrian traffic through a temporary traffic control zone. The plan may range in scope from being very detailed, to merely referencing typical drawings contained in the MUTCD, standard approved highway agency drawings and manuals, or specific drawings contained in contract documents. The degree of detail in the TCP depends entirely on the complexity of the situation, and TCP's should be prepared by persons knowledgeable about the fundamental principles of temporary traffic control and the work activities to be performed.

Traffic control planning requires forethought. Provisions may be incorporated into the project bid documents that enable contractors to develop alternate traffic control plans, which may be used only if the responsible agency finds they are as good as those provided in the plans/specifications. For maintenance and minor utility projects that do not require bidding, forethought must be given to selecting the best traffic control before occupying the temporary traffic control zone. Also, coordination must be made between projects to ensure that duplicate signing is not used and to ensure compatibility of traffic control between adjacent projects.

Modifications of TCP's may be necessary because of changed conditions or determination of even better ways of handling traffic safely and efficiently, while permitting efficient temporary traffic control activities to progress.


The temporary traffic control zone includes the entire section of roadway between the first advance warning sign through the last traffic control device, where traffic returns to its normal path and conditions. Most temporary traffic control zones can be divided into four areas: the advance warning area, the transition area, the activity area, and the termination area. Figure VI-1 illustrates these four areas. The four components that constitute a temporary traffic control zone are described in the order that drivers encounter them. They include the following:

  1. Advance Warning Area

    In the advance warning area, drivers are informed of what to expect. The advance warning may vary from a single sign or flashing lights on a vehicle to a series of signs in advance of the temporary traffic control zone transition area. On freeways and expressways, where driver speed is generally in the higher range (45 mph or more), signs may be placed from 500 feet to ½ mile or more before the temporary traffic control zone. The true test of adequacy of sign spacing is to evaluate how much time the driver has to perceive and react to the condition ahead. In this regard, the use of speed, roadway condition, and related driver expectancy must be considered in order to derive a practical sign spacing distance. As a guide, table II-1 in section 2C-3 should be used in conjunction with consideration of actual or anticipated field conditions. Effective placement of warning signs for urban and rural locals is as follows:

    1. Urban

      Warning sign spacing in advance of the transition area normally range from four to eight times the speed (mph) in feet, with the high end of the range being used when speeds are relatively high. When single advance warning signs are used (as in the case of low-speed residential streets), the advance warning area can be as short as 200 feet. When two or more advance signs are used on higher-speed streets such as major arterials, the advance warning area should extend a greater distance. (See table VI-3.)

    2. Rural

      Rural roadways are characterized by higher speeds. Spacing for the placement of warning signs is substantially longer-from 8 to 12 times the speed (mph) in feet. Two or more advance warning signs are normally used in these conditions, the advance warning area should extend 1,500 feet or more in open highway conditions. (See table VI-3.)

    Advance warning is normally not needed when the activity area is sufficiently removed from the driver's path that it does not interfere with traffic.

  2. Transition Area

    When redirection of the driver's normal path is required, traffic must be channelized from the normal path to a new path. This redirection is intended to occur at the beginning of the transition area. In mobile operations, this transition area moves with the work space. Transition areas usually involve strategic use of tapers, which (because of their importance) are discussed in more detail in section 6C-3.

  3. Activity Area

    The activity area is an area of roadway where the work takes place. It is composed of the work space and the traffic space, and may contain one or more buffer spaces.

    1. Work Space

      The work space is that portion of the roadway closed to traffic and set aside for workers, equipment, and material. Work space may be fixed or may move as work progresses. Long-term work spaces are usually delineated by channelizing devices or shielded by barriers to exclude traffic and pedestrians.

    2. Traffic Space

      The traffic space is the portion of the roadway in which traffic is routed through the activity area.

    3. Buffer Space

      The buffer space is an optional feature in the activity area that separates traffic flow from the work activity or a potentially hazardous area and provides recovery space for an errant vehicle. Neither work activity nor storage of equipment, vehicles, or material should occur in this space. Buffer spaces may be positioned longitudinally and laterally, with respect to the direction of traffic flow.

      1. Longitudinal Buffer Space

        The longitudinal buffer space may be placed in the initial portion of a closed lane in advance of the work space, as shown in figure VI-1. When a protection vehicle is placed in advance of the work space, only the space upstream of the vehicle constitutes the buffer space.

        The longitudinal buffer space, as depicted in figure VI-2, should be used where a closed lane separates opposing traffic flows. Typically, it is formed as a traffic island and defined by channelizing devices.

        A guide for the length of longitudinal buffer space is shown in table VI-1. The length may be adjusted to satisfy individual agency needs.

      2. Lateral Buffer Space

        A lateral buffer space may be used to separate the traffic space from the work space, as shown in figure VI-1, or a potentially hazardous area, such as an excavation or pavement drop- off. A lateral buffer space also may be used between two travel lanes, especially those carrying opposing flows. The width of the lateral buffer space should be determined by engineering judgment.

      Figure VI-1. Component parts of a temporary traffic control zone. For problems with accessibility in using figures and illustrations, please contact the DOC at 202-693-2020.

      Figure VI-1. Component parts of a temporary traffic control zone.

      Figure VI-2. Tapers and buffer space. For problems with accessibility in using figures and illustrations, please contact the DOC at 202-693-2020.

      Figure VI-2. Tapers and buffer space.

      Table VI-1. Guidelines for length of longitudinal buffer space1
      Speed* (mph) Length (feet)
      20 35
      25 55
      30 85
      35 120
      40 170
      45 220
      50 280
      55 335
      60 415
      65 485

    4. Incident Management Vehicle Storage Space

      When work occurs on a high-volume, highly congested facility in an urban area, it is optional to allow space to store emergency vehicles (e.g., tow trucks) to respond quickly to traffic incidents. The storage space is typically provided at the beginning or end of the activity area, or both. An emergency vehicle storage area should not extend into any portion of the buffer space.

      1. Termination Area

        The termination area is used to return traffic to the normal traffic path. The termination area extends from the downstream end of the work area to the END ROAD WORK signs, if posted. Conditions may be such that posting of END ROAD WORK signs is not helpful. For example, the END ROAD WORK signs should normally not be used if other temporary traffic control zones begin within a mile of the end of the work space in rural areas, or about a quarter-mile within urban areas. For normal daytime maintenance operations, the END ROAD WORK SIGN is optional.


A common important element of a temporary traffic control zone is a roadway taper. Tapers may be used in both the transition and termination areas. Tapers are created using a series of channelizing devices or pavement markings placed to move traffic out of or into its normal path. Whenever tapers are to be used near interchange ramps, crossroads, curves, or other influencing factors, it may be desirable to adjust the length of tapers. Longer tapers are not necessarily better than shorter tapers (particularly in urban areas characterized by short block lengths, driveways, etc.) , because extended tapers tend to encourage sluggish operation and to encourage drivers to delay lane changes unnecessarily. The real test of taper length involves observation of driver performance after traffic control plans are put into effect. Types of taper lengths are presented in table VI-2. The maximum space between devices in a taper normally approximates the distance in feet of the speed in miles per hour ( i.e.: a 55 mph speed road should normally have devices spaced about 55 feet apart). Types of tapers are shown in figure VI-2 and the two-way traffic taper is shown in figure VI-3:

Table VI-2. Taper length criteria for temporary traffic control zones
Type of taper Taper length
Upstream tapers  
Merging taper L minimum
Shifting taper ½ L minimum
Shoulder taper ⅓ L minimum
Two-way traffic taper 100 feet maximum
Downstream tapers 100 feet minimum
(use is optional)  
Formulas for L**
Speed Formula
40 mph or less  L = WS2
45 mph or greater L = W x S

  1. Merging Taper

    A merging taper requires the longest distances because drivers are required to merge with an adjacent lane of traffic at the prevailing speed. The taper should be long enough to enable merging drivers to adjust their speeds and merge into a single lane before the end of the transition. For freeways, expressways, and other roadways having a speed of 45 mph or greater, the minimum length for merging tapers should be computed by a formula L = W x S. For residential, urban, and other streets with speeds less than 45 mph, the formula L = (W X S2)/60 should be used. Under either formula, L is the taper length in feet, W is the lateral shift of traffic due to the partially or fully closed lane (in feet), and S is the posted speed, the off-peak 85th percentile speed prior to work starting or the anticipated operating speed. The formula L = (W X S2)/60 is used for speeds less than 45 mph because slower traffic can merge safely in a shorter distance.

  2. Shifting Taper

    A shifting taper is used when merging is not required, but a lateral shift is needed. Approximately one-half L has been found to be adequate. Where more space is available, it may be beneficial to use longer distances. Guidance for changes in alignment may also be accomplished by using horizontal curves designed for normal highway speeds.

  3. Shoulder Taper

    A shoulder taper may be beneficial on high- speed roadways with improved shoulders that may be mistaken for driving lanes (when work is occurring in the shoulder area). If used, shoulder tapers approaching the activity area should have a length of about one-third L. If a shoulder is used as a travel lane either through practice or during a temporary traffic activity, a normal merging or shifting taper should be used. An example of a shoulder taper is presented in figure VI-2.

  4. Downstream Taper

    The downstream taper may be useful in termination areas to provide a visual cue to the driver that access is available to the original lane/path that was closed. When a downstream taper is used, it should have a minimum length of about 100 feet per lane, with devices spaced about 20 feet apart. An example of a downstream taper is shown in figure VI-2.

  5. One-Lane, Two-Way Taper

    The one-lane, two-way traffic taper is used in advance of an activity area that occupies part of a two-way roadway in such a way that a portion of the road is used alternately by traffic in each direction. Typically, traffic is controlled by a temporary traffic signal or a flagger. A short taper having a maximum length of 100 feet with channelizing devices at approximately 20-foot spacings should be used to guide traffic into the one-way section. An example of a one-lane, two-way traffic taper is presented in figure VI-3.


At detours, traffic is directed onto another roadway to bypass the temporary traffic control zone. Detours should be signed clearly over their entire length so that motorists can easily determine how to return to the original roadway.

At diversions, traffic is directed onto a temporary roadway or alignment placed in or next to the right-of-way, e.g., median crossovers or lane shifts.

Figure VI-3. Example of one lane-two way traffic control. For problems with accessibility in using figures and illustrations, please contact the DOC at 202-693-2020.

Figure VI-3. Example of one lane-two way traffic control.


Where traffic in both directions must, for a limited distance, use a single lane, provision should be made for alternate one-way movement through the constricted section. Some means of coordinating movements at each end shall be used to avoid head-on conflicts and to minimize delays. Control points at each end should be chosen to permit easy passing of opposing lines of vehicles. At a "spot" obstruction, however, such as an isolated pavement patch on roadways with lower speeds and adequate sight distance, the movement may be self-regulating.

Alternate one-way traffic control may be accomplished as appropriate by flagger control, a flag-carrying or official car, a pilot car, traffic signals, or by using stop or yield control. This section discusses each of these traffic control techniques. (See section 6E-2 for flagger qualifications.)

  1. Flagger Method

    Where a one-lane two-way temporary traffic control zone is short enough to allow visibility from one end to the other, traffic may be controlled by either a single flagger or by a flagger at each end of the section. When a single flagger is used, the flagger should be stationed on the shoulder opposite the obstruction or work space, or in a position where good visibility and traffic control can be maintained at all times. When good visibility and traffic control cannot be maintained by one flagger station, traffic may be controlled by a flagger at each end of the section. One of the flaggers should be designated as the coordinator. Flaggers should be able to communicate orally or with signals. These signals should not be mistaken for flagging signals. The use of radios may also be desirable even though visual contact is possible.

  2. Flag Transfer Method

    Flag carrying is effective when the route is well defined. It should be employed only when the one-way traffic is confined to a relatively short length of road, usually not more than 1 mile in length.

    The driver of the last vehicle proceeding into the one-lane section is given a red flag (or other token) and instructed to deliver it to the flagger at the other end. The opposite flagger, upon receipt of the flag, then knows that it is safe to allow traffic to move in the other direction. The flag being carried should always be clean and dry. A variation of this method is the use of an "official" car that always follows the last vehicle proceeding through the section. The use of an official car eliminates the possibility of loss of the flag.

  3. Pilot Car Method

    A pilot car is used to guide a queue of vehicles through a normally complex temporary traffic control zone or detour. Its operation must be coordinated with flagging operations or other controls at each end of the one-lane section.

    The pilot car should have the name of the contractor or contracting authority prominently displayed. The PILOT CAR sign (G20-4) shall be mounted at a conspicuous location on the rear of the vehicle.

    Two or more pilot cars may be used to guide two-way traffic through a particularly complex detour.

  4. Temporary Traffic Signal Method

    Traffic signals may be used to control vehicular traffic movements in temporary traffic control zones. Traffic signals should also be considered for half-width bridge reconstruction on low- to moderate-volume highways. Typical applications include highway or street intersections with a temporary haul road or equipment crossing and through areas requiring alternating one-way traffic operations.

  5. Stop or Yield Control Method

    A yield or stop sign may be installed on low- volume, two-lane roads where one side of the roadway is closed and the other side must serve both directions. The side that is closed should yield to or stop for oncoming traffic on the side that is open. The approach to the side that is not closed must be visible (for a distance equal to the safe-passing sight distance for that approach) to the driver who must yield or stop. See section 3B-5, Warrants for No-Passing Zones at Curves.


Provision for effective continuity of transit service needs to be incorporated into the temporary traffic control planning process. Oftentimes, public transit buses cannot efficiently be detoured in the same manner as other vehicles (particularly for short-term maintenance projects). On transit routes, the TCP shall provide for features such as temporary bus stops, pull-outs, and waiting areas for transit patrons.

1 Based upon American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) braking distance portion of stopping sight distance for wet and level pavements (A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets, AASHTO, 1990, p. 120). This AASHTO document also recommends adjustments for the effect Of grade on stopping and variation for trucks.

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