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Driving Dangerously

ANNUAL SURVEY REVEALS DISTURBINGLY HIGH INCIDENCE OF VEHICLE CRASHES IN HIGHWAY WORK ZONES

BY NICK FORTUNA

The video is scary to watch, even if you know in advance that no one was hurt.

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Filmed by the New York State Thruway Authority on Interstate 87 near Albany in April, the footage shows a silver sedan racing down the right shoulder of the three-lane highway until it crashes into a large construction vehicle. The driver apparently was frustrated that the right lane was shut down for construction, so he put the pedal to the metal and created his own traffic lane, safety be damned.

Just a few minutes earlier, a construction worker can be seen walking toward the rig, which prevents oncoming cars from seeing him until they’re too close to alter course.

“If that construction worker had been walking to his rig just a few minutes earlier, he would have been killed,” says Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives for AGC of America. “That’s just an example of some of the behavior that you see on the roads.”

The video was shown May 27 during an AGC presentation on the increasing number of traffic accidents occurring in highway construction zones. The alarming trend has construction executives and safety officials urging motorists to slow down, stay alert and obey traffic laws when passing through construction zones during the summer driving season.

AGC and HCSS released the results of their annual highway work-zone survey in May, and the key finding was that 60% of highway contractors reported motor vehicle crashes at their construction work zones during the past year. Even more troubling is that 30% of the firms reporting work zone crashes said they had happened five or more times during the prior 12 months.

Those numbers appear to be part of a troubling long-term trend, as 78% of contractors surveyed said highway work zones are less safe today than they were a decade ago. When asked which factors are making work zones more dangerous, 88% said cellphone usage while driving, 68% said speeding and 60% cited heavier traffic volumes.

The survey involved interviews with almost 300 highway construction firms in April and May. It’s conducted each year to give the industry a better understanding of the frequency, severity and broader impacts of vehicles crashing into highway work zones.

Work-zone crashes pose an even greater danger to motorists than to construction workers, according to the survey. Among participating contractors, 19% reported crashes that resulted in injuries to construction workers, but 35% reported crashes that injured drivers or passengers.
Drivers and passengers also are three times as likely as construction workers to be killed in work zone crashes, according to the survey. Four percent of contractors surveyed reported crashes that killed workers, while 12 percent reported crashes that killed drivers or passengers.

“In many cases, vehicle speeding contributes to these crashes in work zones,” says Steve McGough, president and chief financial officer of Heavy Construction Systems Specialists Inc., the software company known as HCSS, a member of multiple AGC chapters. “Utilizing speed cam-eras with a zero-tolerance policy would go a long way to protect the traveling public and our workforce.”

The pandemic-induced decline in traffic volumes appears to have had little impact on highway work zone safety, according to Ken Simonson, AGC’s chief economist. Among survey respondents, only 34% reported any apparent increase in safety because of lower traffic volumes, while 30% said low volumes had made conditions less safe by encouraging motorists to drive faster, and 35% reported no change in jobsite safety due to lower traffic volumes.

“The men and women of the construction industry are frequently working just a few feet, and sometimes inches, away from speeding vehicles,” Simonson says. “Too often, drivers who are distracted, speeding and/or under the influence crash into those work zones, putting workers and themselves at risk of serious harm and death.”

Simonson says construction firms are taking a variety of steps to improve work-zone safety, including special training programs to make workers more aware of their surroundings; better signage and markings at jobsites; improved layouts and the usage of concrete barriers to make work zones safer; and new technology such as wearable devices that alert workers when vehicles encroach on work zones.

But he calls on public officials to take action by boosting police presence in work zones and enacting tougher penalties for drivers behaving irresponsibly by speeding or using their cellphones. According to the survey, 82% of contractors said having more police at work zones would improve safety, and 70% said laws banning cellphone usage near work zones should be strengthened.

In addition, 68% called for stricter enforcement of existing laws regarding moving violations in work zones, and 61% said more roads should be closed and more traffic detoured during construction.

“Putting policemen at the beginning and at the end of work zones is extremely effective,” says Amy Hall, president of Sylvania, Ohio-based Ebony Construction, an Ohio Contractors Association member. “Usually, when people see the flashing red lights, it draws attention to your speedometer, which is very good.”

On the state level, many AGC chapters are working with local officials to put those changes in place. In New York, the state chapter is urging state legislators to pass a law allowing the use of speed cameras on highway construction projects. These efforts have taken on even greater importance this year given the federal government’s push for a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure bill that, if passed, would spur a nationwide construction boom.

“Speed cameras have demonstrated to be effective at getting motorists to comply with posted speed limits, but they’re only being used in a few states, including Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois and pilot tests in New Jersey,” McGough says. “I personally believe mandatory enforcement of speed limits is the most effective at getting people to comply since no one wants to speed through a work zone and get a ticket each time.”

In the end, however, it’s up to drivers to recognize the risks of high-speed or distracted driving and to act accordingly, Simonson says.

“Better training and public policies will help, but the ultimate responsibility lies with motorists,” he says. “The best thing anyone can do to protect themselves and workers is to slow down, put the phone away and pay attention when they are in a highway work zone.”

“We are all busy, but nobody is too busy to slow down, pay attention and save a life — particularly when that life is likely to be their own,” Simonson adds. “As folks get ready to hit the road this summer for a much-deserved and long-delayed vacation, remember one thing: If you can wait 15 months to take a trip, you can wait a few more minutes to save a life.”

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