As the nation’s top highway official took to a D.C. street corner Tuesday to publicize the problem, almost 40 percent of highway contractors reported that they have had drivers plow into their construction sites.

Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez, speaking at 21st and M Streets in Northwest Washington, made his plea for drivers to take it easy at work zones. Construction zone safety has become a major issue in recent years as aging roadways and federal stimulus funding resulted in plethora of work zones.

Most states, with Maryland near the forefront, have been aggressive in policing the zones with speed cameras that send out tickets on which the penalty is doubled. Though the emphasis placed by Mendez and by the Associated General Contractors of
America was on protection of work crews, experts say drivers and their passengers make up the the majority of work zone deaths.

When drivers fail to slow as a work zone alters the traffic pattern, they lose control of their vehicles.  In 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, 587 people died in highway work-zone fatalities – an increase of 11 fatalities over the previous year.

“Any time your job site is just a few feet away from fast moving traffic, danger is never far away,” said Mike Hoover of the contractors association. “When you see construction signs and orange barrels, take your foot off the gas, put the phone down
and keep your eyes on the road.”

Hoover said that 46 percent of contractors surveyed said drivers or passengers were among those injured during work zone crashes last year. Hoover said more than 18 percent of work zone crashes injure construction workers.