Deaths in construction zones are at an all-time high. In 1999, the most recent year for which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has statistics, 868 people were killed in work-zone related accidents.
Most of those killed in work zone crashes were occupants of vehicles that collided with other cars or ran into construction equipment alongside the highway. Between 1995 and 1999, motorists accounted for 84 percent of work zone fatalities.
A House subcommittee held a hearing yesterday to examine the increase in work zone deaths, and to look at ways to reduce the numbers of accidents and fatalities.
Several roadbuilding industry groups participated in the hearing.
E. Dean Carlson, president of the Association of Highway Officials, said state transportation agencies have been trying to curb the growth of fatal accidents, but more education for workers and the public is needed.
"With an increase in the number of work zones as we repair and expand our nation''s highway system, there are safety and mobility issues that require thoughtful planning by DOTs and special attention from the driving public," said Carlson.
Carlson noted it is clear on high-traffic-volume roadways, more effective and safer work zones exist where numbers of through lanes are maintained (often by paving shoulders), and geometrics allow capacity and speed to be maintained when barriers are placed between a work zone and moving traffic and when motorists are given good warning well in advance in the work zone.
Other ways state transportation agencies have been trying to minimize work zone accidents include, doubling fines for speeding; installing more message signs to warn motorists about the work; trying to keep all lanes open through a work zone to keep traffic moving; and even closing a road entirely in order to speed construction along.
Even though motorists die most often, the people who most fear work-zone accidents are those who build the roadways themselves.
"Roadway work zone safety is a complex, multi-faceted problem that, unfortunately, does not lend itself to simple answers," said John Wright, chairman of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. "Imagine if your work desk was literally 4 feet from cars and trucks moving 65 or more miles per hour!"
Wright told the House subcommittee that all state and local government contracts for highway and bridge work using federal dollars should include earmarked funding for products and activities that protect the safety of motorists and workers in construction zones.
He also urged the federal government to conduct research on the health and safety implications of night roadway construction.
"State and local governments are increasingly requiring night work in an attempt to minimize inconvenience to motorists," said Wright. "Let''s make sure we are not compromising motorist and worker safety in doing that."
by Virginia Foran