Highway construction work zones are producing vehicle crashes at an ever-increasing rate. A recent fact sheet from FHWA notes a 50% increase in work zone fatalities between 1997 and 2003. The latest available data puts the total number of work zones crashes at 102,000, resulting in 1,028 fatalities and 42,000 injuries.

Often horrific events, work zone crashes can destroy the lives of construction workers, passenger-car and truck drivers. And they often lead to high-profile jury awards with devastating consequences to companies as well.

A few months ago I reported on two jury awards against trucking companies that totaled nearly $37 million. Within the past three years, I've devoted two columns to work zone safety.

I'm sad to say, however, that the carnage continues. As I write this column, another work zone crash is making the news. It occurred at a road construction project in North Babylon, New York. According to reports, a truck collided with stopped or merging traffic on a busy highway on Long Island. Fourteen vehicles were involved; there were four fatalities and multiple injuries. The crash was so severe that NTSB sent a team to investigate.

It's my guess that when the NTSB report is released, it will highlight the escalating problem of work zone crashes. The combination of increased highway construction and more congested roads is a recipe for disaster. And it creates an environment where a number of driver, road, vehicle and fleet problems can intersect — with very negative results:

  • At- risk driver behavior: Driving while distracted or driving too fast for conditions.

  • Poor vehicle maintenance: Defective equipment, leading to impaired braking.

  • Improper roadway design: Construction projects, by definition, are not usually located on roadways that are in good condition.

  • Poor management: Failure of carriers to factor in the impact of highway construction on their operations.

What is being done to stem the carnage?

FHWA hosts a “National Work Zone Awareness Week” every April, and publishes fact sheets, summarizes national and state work zone crash prevention efforts, and provides a number of public service announcements. OSHA simultaneously promotes public awareness by documenting the worker safety hazards related to highway construction projects.

In addition, road-builders, suppliers and government groups have formed a partnership called the Roadway Work Zone Safety and Health Coalition to develop hazard awareness and public education programs, including the 13-module Roadway Safety Awareness Program. (For details, go to http://wzsafety.tamu.edu, the web site for the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse.)

Are these efforts sufficient? Not really. I think our investment in public and private safety efforts should be increased in proportion to our record-high highway construction spending levels.

At the very least, FMCSA should include this topic as a top research and safety priority. But when I searched 150 recommendations from its 2004 Research and Technology Stakeholder Forums, the only reference to highway work zone safety I found was related to “over-dimensional permitting.”

Imagine what we could do if we had an industry/ government effort dedicated to stemming highway work zone crashes that was modeled on the road-building industry's program.

In the meantime, I urge you to redouble your own efforts. First, gain a management commitment to eliminate work zone crashes from your organization. Promote driver awareness by using any of the 272 “outreach” items posted on the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse web site. Finally, lobby your state and national industry associations and government agencies to significantly increase their work zone safety efforts.

Jim York is the manager of Zurich Service Corp.'s Risk Engineering Transportation Team, based in Schaumburg, IL.