Road Work-Zone Crashes Swell as Buffers Vanish

Jaime Sanchez, left, and Gerber Hernandez of Concrete General work on the Kenilworth Avenue bridge in Cheverly. Maryland officials want to add cameras and raise speeding fines in work zones.
Jaime Sanchez, left, and Gerber Hernandez of Concrete General work on the Kenilworth Avenue bridge in Cheverly. Maryland officials want to add cameras and raise speeding fines in work zones. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2007

The five road workers were sitting on a guardrail eating lunch behind a row of orange construction barrels when danger approached. A white Ford Econoline van veered onto the narrow shoulder of Route 29 north, rammed into a parked cement mixer and lost control, slamming into the guardrail. Martin Ruffin, 30, was killed instantly. James L. Cronin III, 37, died the next day. The others were injured.

Accidents like the tragedy at the routine patching job Aug. 13 in Montgomery County are on the rise on highways around Washington. More and more, distracted, speeding motorists are hitting workers building roads for new development, laying utility lines and paving, resurfacing or rebuilding roads and bridges that, with age and unlikely replacement, now need constant attention.

The number of work-zone crashes reached 2,781 in Maryland in 2005, up from 2,134 in 1997; fatalities doubled to 14 in 2002 and have hovered there since. Virginia, where massive projects at the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the Springfield Mixing Bowl have increased construction zones, now averages 2,300 such crashes a year, highway officials said.

Motorists, not workers, are the victims in 80 percent of the accidents, safety officials say. The number of people hit and killed in highway work zones nationally rose to 1,074 in 2005, from 693 in 1997, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

To slow the record number of construction-zone accidents and fatalities, Maryland officials plan to propose an aggressive remedy when the General Assembly convenes in January. They want to double fines for speeding, to a maximum of $2,000, and mount cameras in work areas to catch speeding cars. The safety measures could also penalize negligent drivers with points on their licenses.

"All things should be screaming at you to slow down," said John D. Porcari, Maryland's transportation secretary. "We're all living in traffic, and now there are implications for safety."

Porcari stressed that speed cameras -- deployed this year on residential streets and around schools in Montgomery -- would be solely a safety tool, not a strategy to write tickets. The administration of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) plans to propose similar legislation this winter to allow cameras in Virginia, where speeding fines in work zones doubled in 2003 to $500.

But photo enforcement has met resistance in both states, where lawmakers from both parties have blocked legislation because of privacy concerns.

In the District, speeding on 14th and 16th streets and Georgia Avenue, busy commuter routes with ongoing construction, prompted a City Council committee to vote this month for doubled speeding fines in work zones. "We're being terrorized by Maryland drivers," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who sponsored the emergency legislation. City traffic makes speeding more difficult, but "on a lot of streets, if you're going 35 miles per hour in a work zone, that's speeding," he said. The council will consider adding photo enforcement, he said.

The heightened awareness of work-zone accidents comes at a time when highway officials often must carve work areas into traffic to keep vehicles moving on the nation's second-most-congested road network. On the Capital Beltway one Monday night last month, a crew dismantling the underside of a bridge above the highway was separated from oncoming cars by a row of orange cones.

"Sometimes, that's the only thing between us and the live traffic," said Dennis Crowe Sr., project coordinator for the Beltway job to replace a 50-year-old bridge deck on Rockville Pike. "A cone or a barrel. You hope and pray the people driving by you aren't putting on makeup or reading the paper."

There are about 300 construction zones on Maryland roads at any time -- a record number, officials say. Once, highway engineers in the Washington area could close several lanes of traffic at a time for road work. Now, if motorists used to cruising down shoulders in search of exit ramps are squeezed into a single lane, they may not get to work on time. So work areas must be temporary, minimally disruptive to traffic and small -- so small that there's nowhere for a state trooper or police officer to pull over a speeding motorist.

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