Road crews work close to the edge


A paver crew with the F.O. Day Co. moves through an intersection along Greenbelt Road. The lane in foreground is open to traffic. (Photos by Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

While I was standing in the median on Greenbelt Road late Monday night to get the photo above, I got a warning from a companion standing just to the right: Heads up! he said, as he looked into the oncoming traffic that was about to flow through the open lane to the left of the paving crew. He could see a driver with his head down staring into a phone, apparently texting. Meanwhile, the vehicle was straying to the left, toward the lip of an already paved lane. Fortunately for us, he corrected the cars motion before straying out of the lane.

Orange cone in lane
What’s between your vehicle and the workers.

Road crews like the one working on a Maryland State Highway Administration paving project 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 D.C. region aren’t toiling behind concrete barriers. They aren’t building new lanes, as on Maryland’s Intercounty Connector, or Virginia’s express lanes.

They more often are fixing the pavement we already have, and that means they work in one lane while traffic moves around them in another. The only things between us and them are the orange cones. So for the time it takes to drive through the work zones, so we drivers are either their best friends or their worst enemies.


The lighting is intense around the paving crew, but parts of the orange cone zone aren’t as bright at midnight.

A work zone like this contains its own distractions. While watching the pavers at work may be entertaining, you have to watch for shifting lanes, uneven asphalt, pedestrians and bicyclists. (I was surprised by the numbers of both out around midnight.)

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

Earlier 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 Transurban-Fluor consortium building the 95 Express Lanes project, which found that 62 percent of daily I-95 commuters are likely to use their cellphones while driving.

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

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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