Distracted drivers increase threat to vulnerable road crews in D.C. area


A cellphone being used in a car. Virginia safety advocates released a report that found that 62 percent of daily Interstate 95 commuters are likely to use their phones while driving. (Pat Wellenbach/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Robert Thomson
Columnist May 28

Late at night last week, I was standing with a group of construction supervisors watching a paving crew at work on Greenbelt Road when a companion to the right shouted a warning.

As he looked into the traffic about to flow through the lane between us and the workers, he spotted a driver with his head down staring at a phone, apparently texting. Meanwhile, the vehicle strayed to the left, toward the lip of an already paved lane — and us. Fortunately, the driver corrected the car’s motion before leaving the lane.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Guess he had finished his message.

Road crews such as the one working on this Maryland State Highway Administration project in Greenbelt encounter this sort of thing all the time — and a lot worse. Wait till the bars close up, they told me.

Thanks, anyway. I’d seen enough to grasp a key feature of their work environment. Many of the workers out each night in the Washington region aren’t toiling behind concrete barriers. They aren’t building new lanes, such as the ones on Maryland’s Intercounty Connector, or Virginia’s 95 Express Lanes.

More often, they are fixing the pavement we already have. They scrape off the old asphalt, then put down a fresh layer. While they work in one lane, traffic flows by in another. The only thing between the drivers and the workers is the line of orange cones along the lane boundary.

For the time it takes to drive through the work zones, motorists are either their best friends or their worst enemies.

A work zone like this, with two through lanes in each direction and shopping plazas, gas stations and fast-food restaurants on either side, contains many distractions. The presence of the paving crew adds to that. Drivers must watch for shifting lanes, uneven asphalt, pedestrians and bicyclists. (I was surprised by the numbers of both out about midnight.)

So don’t bring your own set of in-vehicle distractions into this environment.

This month, I attended an event in Dale City that spotlighted an admirable safety program called “Orange Cones. No Phones.” You get the idea from the title. The safety advocates released a report, sponsored by AAA and the Fluor-Transurban consortium that is building the 95 Express Lanes, which found that 62 percent of daily Interstate 95 commuters are likely to use their cellphones while driving.

It was attention-getting, but the locale for the presentation was the rest area just west of the I-95 traffic. That’s cozy compared with midnight on Greenbelt Road. And that’s the environment that will be replicated hundreds of times during your summer travels.

LIGHT AT END OF track TUNNEL

Halfway through its intensive rebuilding program, Metro is planning more adjustments to the weekend track-work schedule. It will still be intense, just not quite as intense.

Starting in July, most of the weekend station shutdowns will not begin until midnight, rather than at 10 p.m. Friday. That two-hour shift should make a difference in favor of Nationals fans attending Friday night games, or the dinner-and-a-movie crowd.

The total number of major disruptions in the second half of this year will also shrink. And the planned shutdowns usually will not occur on consecutive weekends anywhere in the system. The exception would be a major project, like a switch replacement, that would require crews to spend a long time in a work zone to finish the job.

Meanwhile, Metro officials are also considering ways of bringing back midday track work on weekdays, the type of work requiring trains to take turns on one open track. But they say it would be different this time, because midday work would be restricted to locations where the effects on riders would be minimal.

One example: the work on the test track between College Park and Greenbelt for the new rail cars. “We can single-track between those two stations, while still maintaining the average 12-minute scheduled headway on the Green Line,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. The midday single-tracking would not return to the more heavily traveled core of the rail system, he said.

The change in the weekend work schedule is motivated in part by Metro’s fatigue management program for its employees, Stessel said. But it also reflects the evolution of the five-year rebuilding program’s impact on riders.
The number of station shutdowns scheduled for the first half of this year was also smaller than previous track work schedules. In the first half of 2013, Metro closed stations on weekends 22 times. For the first half of 2014, Metro plans included 10 weekend shutdowns.

For the second half of this year, Metro plans to shut a dozen sections of track on weekends between the start of August and just before Thanksgiving. The major projects are scheduled for the Red, Green and Orange lines. For the second half of 2013, by contrast, Metro listed 30 major projects affecting all five lines.

Weekend riders know well that the major track-work projects — the kind that split lines and require shuttle buses to bridge a gap — are not the only projects that disrupt service on weekends. More often, Metro will schedule rebuilding projects that close one side of track while leaving the other open for trains to share directions, the procedure known as single-tracking.

Metro plans dozens of single-tracking operations for all lines on various weekends between the start of July and the end of December.

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