Commuters on Route 29 and I-95 pass through long work zones for Maryland’s Intercounty Connector. Drivers on the Capital Beltway in Virginia feel like they’re in one continuous work zone. The highway departments in both states are reminding drivers this week that the construction areas can be dangerous places, and the lives that careful drives save may be their own: Four out of five people killed in work zones are motorists.
The construction areas for the big projects, like the connector, the Beltway HOT lanes and the Telegraph Road interchange stick around all year. But now, as spring starts, the number of smaller work zones is expanding greatly. Often, they are marked only by orange barrels rather than concrete barriers.The warming weather also means that drivers will start to roam farther from home, for long weekends and vacations. They’ll be driving along less familiar roadways with their own work zones.
Virginia officials noted that there were 3,249 work zone crashes in the Commonwealth in 2009, the most recent year for which the total was available. A vigil for state workers killed along the highways was held Monday at the Virginia Department of Transportation Memorial on I-64 in Albemarle County.
Meanwhile, Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley and Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez were at the Intercounty Connector work zone Monday to memorialize those killed in construction area crashes and mark the start of National Work Zone Awareness Week. They noted that Maryland averaged 2,646 work zone crashes each year.
There are many reminders going out this week about how to stay safe in work zones, but I’d like to feature two.
* A work zone is hazardous, whether or not the workers are present. We have this debate when we talk about Maryland’s work zone speed camera system, which sends out tickets to drivers going at least 12 mph over the speed limit through a handful of work zones. Speeding drivers think it’s unfair when they get tickets during hours when the workers aren’t on the job.
First, it’s not up to drivers to decide whether a highway work zone is active as they’re speeding through it. Second, the zone is hazardous because the normal traffic alignment is disrupted. Traffic shifts or splits, barriers are up against the lanes, and the lanes are narrowed.
* Distracted driving causes a lot of these accidents. Even something that’s relatively simple, like following a highway lane shift, becomes more challenging when a driver is on the phone, even when using a hands-free device.
Kids often get the blame for such distracted driving. But safety officials worry about workers who feel compelled by their employers to be on the job even when they’re driving. I admire the consciousness-raising campaign sponsored by Fluor-Transurban, the HOT lanes partnership, and AAA Mid-Atlantic in getting Northern Virginia employers to commit to a safety pledge that says in part: “We pledge to raise awareness among our employees about the dangers of distracted driving and discourage cell phone use while driving – specifically in construction zones.”
The “Orange Cones. No Phones.” campaign sponsored a driver survey that found half of all distracted drivers use their phones on the road for work, and 57 percent of those drivers did so because they felt their employer expected it.