Danger – and death – in the highway work zone

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It’s a cringe-worthy factoid if there ever was one: according to a recent survey of 400 highway contractors by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), 68% said that motor vehicles crashed into their construction work zones during the past year. Whoa!

The study also found that such “work zone crashes” are more likely to kill construction workers than they are to kill vehicle operators or passengers. And the number of deaths from such crashes is pretty scary, too: over 500 in 2010, according to U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) figures, and that wasn’t a year noted for a large amount of highway construction work, either.

“Any time your job site is just a few feet away from fast moving traffic, things can get a little too exciting,” noted Tom Brown, chairman of AGC’s national highway and transportation division and president of Vista, CA-based construction firm Sierra Pacific West. [That’s one hell of an understatement if you ask me!]

“Since construction workers don’t get the option of wearing seatbelts, they are more likely to be killed in a work zone crash than motorists are,” he stressed.

Brown pointed out that 28% of highway contractors reported worker injuries due to work zone crashes in 2011, with 18% reporting at least one construction worker death resulting from them.

[Below is the story of highway contractor Wilton Watson, who survived a work zone crash three years ago. Warning: this video shows photographs of his injuries, which are fairly graphic.]

And while work zone crashes are less likely to kill motor vehicle operators and passengers, highway work zone crashes do pose a significant risk for people in cars, Brown stressed, noting that more than 50% of work zone crashes injure vehicle operators or users, with 15% of them resulting in vehicle operator or passenger fatalities.

There’s a fiscal impact to work zone crashes, too, as they significantly affect construction schedules and costs, Brown added.

For example, he said 35% of contractors reported that work zone crashes during the past year forced them to temporarily shut down construction activity, with those delays often lengthy, as 47% of them lasted two or more days.

[Here are some thoughts from highway workers out in the great state of Texas about what drivers of all motor vehicles – cars and big rigs alike – can do to help insure they get to go home at the end of a shift spent building and repairing the asphalt alive and well.]

What should be done to reduce such crashes? Well, AGC’s study found that 75% of contractors nationwide feel that tougher laws, fines and legal penalties for moving violations in work zones would reduce injuries and fatalities. And 66% of contractors nationwide agree that more frequent safety training for workers could help, too.

“The easiest way to improve work zone safety is to get motorists to slow down and pay attention,” Brown said. “When motorists see construction signs and orange barrels, they need to take the foot off the gas, put the phone down and keep their eyes on the road.”

“We know that drivers need to be reminded to keep their eyes on the road, because texting and other distractions have become a major concern,” added John Horsley, executive director for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

“When you’re traveling at 50 or 60 miles per hour, it only takes a couple of seconds of distraction to cause major tragedy,” he stressed.

Ain’t that the truth. 

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