If there is one thing the latest Common Ground Alliance (CGA) Technology Report makes clear, it is that the damage prevention ecosystem has an embarrassment of riches on its hands in terms of technological innovation. Indeed, a review of other CGA studies and publications along with reports by various regulatory bodies confirm: the technology needed to bolster the damage prevention process, improve efficiency, and prevent excavation damage is here.
The technology exists in spades. Yet every year we see tens of billions of dollars in damage costs and added billions in waste and inefficiency. How is it possible to have multiple technologies proven to reduce damage by 67 percent, technology proven to save costs, technology proven to improve communication and efficiency, and yet still to experience skyrocketing excavation damage rates? That is a question that must be answered.
In a recent report, we surveyed the top organizations in the country that together entail not only the broadest representation of stakeholders at every level, but also independent bodies and regulators with deep subject matter expertise in damage prevention. That survey revealed incredible consensus on communications technologies including:
(1) Electronic White-Lining
(2) Electronic Positive Response
(3) Enhanced Positive Response, and
(4) Predictive Analytics
It appears that everyone agrees these are needed, proven to lower costs and prevent damage, and are available to implement across the system. Yet systemic adoption is not occurring. CGA identifies a number of barriers to implementation – some of which are entirely mental and not structural barriers at all. Yet they also point out that “most 811 centers now receive the majority of their incoming notices electronically rather than by telephone and can support electronic white-lining and automated/enhanced positive response systems.” This is consistent with our own 2020 Damage Prevention Report Card, in which we identify that 56 states and the District of Columbia have at least a voluntary electronic positive response portal hosted by the one-call center allowing the excavator to check the status of the ticket – the type of system needed to support enhanced positive response.
With virtually all of the nation’s one-call centers having electronic positive response already in place and the systems able to support both electronic white-lining and enhanced positive response, why are these not in place everywhere? Part of the answer is that states are slow to update their dig laws – as evidenced in the movement from our 2016 Damage Prevention Report Card to our 2020 Report Card. Few states changed any legal requirements, even though voluntary upgrades were made in that time. But the voluntary upgrades are also slow and for the most part only extended to a ticket check system (or electronic positive response). There has been virtually no movement on electronic white-lining or enhanced positive response, which are overwhelmingly the more impactful in streamlining costs and preventing damage.
Predictive analytics is still an emerging practice, but one that is occurring in the field nonetheless. Once again, all four of these key communications technologies are in practice, but sporadically and not systemically; employed by a handful of companies and entities around the country.
Given the slow rate of private adoption and the eminent availability of applicable technology, it appears that some type of government action is needed. It is needed because damage rates are far too high and inefficiency is holding back improvements, totaling around $100 billion in economic harm every year. With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (colloquially referred to as the bipartisan infrastructure law), these damage and cost rates may get worse not better. That is due to the strong correlation between infrastructure spending and excavation damage rates.
So we have high damage rates and enormous costs, the likely potential of further spikes in damage incidents and costs, and a host of technology precisely suited to counteract them. Now is the time for all parties – public and private – to act.
Those actions can be carrot or stick, but must occur. If incentives, education, advocacy, and grants can help move the needle then those should be oriented toward achieving nationwide systemic adoption of electronic white-lining, enhanced positive response, and predictive analytics systems. If, however, that progress is too slow or ineffective, then federal regulatory authority and state regulators must begin to set minimum enforceable standards for the use of these technologies in the excavation process. We will not achieve CGA’s vision of the ideal excavation of the future in 2030 featuring electronic white-lining and enhanced positive response as steps one and two if these steps are not taken today.
Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.