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Deadly Distractions: Advice to Stay Safe in Highway Work Zones

April 28, 2016
Motor vehicle accidents claim more workers' lives than any other cause, and injury claims from motor vehicle crashes are some of the highest. But as expert Daniel Brown tells us, a few simple changes in the way we drive – and a little patience – can save lives.

We've all been there: rushing to get to work or an appointment and all of a sudden, traffic stops. We find ourselves out of time and out of patience. Despite increasing levels of frustration, Daniel Brown, technical manager of Travelers Transportation Risk Control Group, cautions against doing anything rash.

"According to a bulletin from the National Transportation Safety Board, there's been a 10 percent increase in the number of vehicle fatalities," says Brown. "That's an alarming increase, unprecedented in a way."

Brown points out that the number of highway miles we travel is increasing, the number of vehicles on the roads are increasing, and the number of infrastructure road construction projects is increasing.

"We have more traffic, more construction and more distractions. It's a perfect storm," he warns.

In 2014, the last year for which such numbers are available, 669 people were killed in work zones. "While fatalities are about half of what they were 15 years ago, too many people are still dying in work zones," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "It's up to you, me and the rest of the driving public to keep workers and ourselves safe by slowing down and paying attention when behind the wheel."

Causes of Crashes

Most crashes can be attributed to one of three causes: speed, alcohol or distracted driving.

According to Brown, speed is a factor in half of all work zone fatalities. And, he adds, speed often contributes to another cause: drivers not maintaining safe following distances.

"Forty to 50 percent of crashes are rear end crashes," he says. "That tells you right there that people are driving too fast and not allowing a safe following distance."

We already know the dangers of impaired driving, but how many drivers realize that the electronics we take for granted – entertainment systems, cell phones (even hands-free can be a distraction) and GPS systems – are distractions that take not only our eyes, but our minds, off the road?

Brown points to a study from Virginia Tech researchers that found 80 percent of the drivers involved in crashes were not looking at the roadway.

"Cell phones get the majority of the focus when talking about distracted driving," says Brown, "but talking to passengers, adjusting controls for infotainment systems and using in-vehicle electronics are all distractions. I've seen people grooming themselves, eating and even reading while driving. All are distractions that could be deadly."

He also points out that construction zones – with lane changes; large, moving equipment; workers and flaggers; and restricted views and breakdown lanes – can be the ultimate driving distraction and employees need to slow down, keep their eyes on the road and obey all warnings.

High Costs for Employers

Employers often pay a high cost for unsafe or distracted driving by employees (or by other drivers who involve employees in accidents).  The average work-related motor vehicle injury claim costs $72,540, nearly twice as much as other work-related injury claims. And some 36 percent of workplace fatalities are vehicle related. In addition, employers are being held liable by the courts when employees are found liable in work-related crashes.

Hands-free technologies might make it easier for motorists to text or talk on the phone while they drive, but findings from a 2013 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety show dangerous mental distractions exist even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.  The research found that as mental workload and distractions increase, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues, potentially resulting in drivers not seeing items right in front of them including stop signs and pedestrians.

Brown suggests that the first step in eliminating motor vehicle crashes is a zero tolerance policy for the use of electronics while driving. No cell phone use – even hands free – and limiting the use of GPS and other info systems as much as possible while driving.

The second step is to communicate that policy to employees, and the third is to encourage everyone – including the highest level of management – to follow it.

"We encourage our customers to adopt robust distracted driving policies for employees at all levels. The CEO needs to set a good example by following the distracted driving policy, because it shows that at the highest level, the company is supporting the message," says Brown.

"If everyone doesn't follow the policy, it erodes the whole program," he adds.
Travelers encourage its customers to periodically check the driving records of their employees who drive for work. If an employee has received numerous speeding tickets or moving violations while driving his or her personal vehicle, is that an employee you want representing your company on the road?

He also counsels employers to talk to employees about the safe operation of vehicles – maintaining proper tire air pressure, making sure windshield wipers work and indicator lights are not burned out – and to provide training in on-board monitoring systems or safety systems such as backing alarms or lane departure warnings.

In the near future, he says, many vehicle fleets will be outfitted with telematics systems that do more than provide vehicle tracking or GPS. "They can tell us how a driver is driving: are they operating the vehicle at safe speeds, are they cornering too aggressively, are they speeding up and stopping suddenly? We will know so much more about how a vehicle is being operated and will allow us to offer feedback to employees about how they compare to company expectations and their peers."

These systems also can inform employers when employees are good drivers and are obeying company policies and road rules. "Positive feedback is a powerful tool in building a safety culture that supports safe driving," says Brown.

In 2012, a survey found that on-the-job crashes cost American business $275.6 billion. Driver behavior is responsible for 90 percent of all highway accidents.

Just as we want employees to be safe during work hours and while off the job, we should encourage them to drive safely all the time.

The bottom line, says Brown, is "good drivers are good for business."

Work Zone Safety Tips From Travelers

Here are some tips that can help you and others stay safe when there is roadwork ahead:
Be prepared for the unexpected. Things can change quickly in work zones. Slowed or stopped traffic, a traffic lane closure or equipment and workers on the roadway are all possible.

Slow down. More than one-third of fatal accidents in work zones are caused by speeding. Obey the posted speed limit, even if you do not see any work currently in progress.
  • Keep a safe following distance. Rear-end collisions account for 30 percent of work zone accidents. Keep a safe distance between you and other cars, construction workers and equipment to help avoid accidents.
  • Obey road crew flaggers and road signs. Flaggers and warning signs are there to help all drivers move safely through the work zone.
  • Stay alert and focused. Your full attention should be on the road. Multitasking while driving is never recommended, especially through a work zone.
  • Keep up with traffic. Do not slow down to watch the roadwork.
  • Plan ahead. Before hitting the road, check a traffic report for delays. Be sure to plan enough time to help you reach your destination on time.
  • Be patient. While roadwork can be an inconvenience, remember that the crews are working to improve roads and make everyone's drive safer.

  • Resources

    Selecting Safe Drivers

    Distracted Driving Policies

    Safety Technologies

    IIHS Web Page on Collision Avoidance Technologies

    National Safety Council Distracted Driving Information

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