Safety officials focus on I-95′s long work zone

[This post has been updated.]

Among the hundreds of road work zones in the D.C. region, the one most likely to affect travelers on spring and summer getaways is the 29-mile construction area along Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia.

Express lanes map
Blue line shows 95 Express Lanes. Green line shows 495 Express Lanes. (Map courtesy of Transurban (USA) Operations)

About 1,500 workers are employed in building the 95 Express Lanes. “I think I saw most of them during my drive up this morning,” Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said Thursday morning. He was at the Dale City rest stop to help launch an annual traffic safety campaign called “Orange Cones. No Phones.” This was the ideal setting for the event, because it was so close to the very unideal conditions motorists face along the interstate.

Northbound or southbound, a drive through the work zone is rarely a smooth cruise. I-95 at 10:30 a.m. Thursday was a swirly mess of starting, stopping, lane-shifting cars, tractor-trailers and construction trucks.

Last year’s construction program was highlighted by bridge-building at access points for the new lanes. The project is three-quarters done and is on schedule to wrap up at the end of this year. But much paving, sound-wall construction and toll-system setup work remains. On many weekends, including this one, the HOV lanes in the middle of I-95 will be closed for the construction.

The HOV lanes will close starting at 11 p.m. Friday. They should be reopened for northbound traffic by 2 p.m. Sunday.

At middays and overnights during the construction season, drivers also will encounter closings in the regular lanes.

Layne described the “Orange Cones. No Phones” effort as a “model program” to combat distracted driving in work zones.

As the weather warms and work zones become more abundant, the Virginia transportation and safety officials involved in the campaign are looking at the rather discouraging results of a new survey showing that drivers in these high-risk areas can’t seem to get off the phone.

These distracted drivers obviously are putting road workers at risk, but the people most likely to get hurt in a work zone crash are motorists and their passengers. The officials were gathered Thursday by Interstate 95 to beg drivers to show more sense.

The report, sponsored by AAA and the Transurban-Fluor consortium building the 29-mile-long 95 Express Lanes project, found that 62 percent of daily I-95 commuters are likely to use their cellphones while driving. The result was based on an online survey of 1,023 frequent I-95 drivers who live in Northern Virginia and was conducted in March.

It gets worse: 15 percent of respondents talked about reading text messages while driving, 9 percent acknowledged writing a text and 5 percent admitted to reading or responding to an e-mail.

“Typing and driving on this road?” exclaimed AAA’s Marlon G. “Lon” Anderson as he gestured toward I-95. “What are they thinking?”

One of the many things I like about the campaign is that it acknowledges distracted driving is not just about young people sharing text messages. The survey found that 54 percent of respondents who use their cellphones are at least occasionally responding to a work issue, and nearly one in four said they are either always or usually using the phone for work purposes.

The campaign encourages employers to ban the use of cellphones while driving, noting that it’s in bosses’ interest to keep workers alive.

In another posting, I described an AARP training course for older drivers led by instructor Rose Hobson. She warned her students that the sources of distracted driving range well beyond cellphones. “Don’t let me catch you looking at maps,” she told them. Indeed, a few seconds of fiddling with the radio dial is enough time to close the distance with a car braking for a traffic jam ahead.

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.
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