But new programs and technologies present an opportunity to reverse the trend, leaders say.
By Robyn Griggs Lawrence
Image Credit: American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA)
This year’s National Work Zone Awareness Week, the annual campaign to encourage extra-cautious driving in work zones, comes at a critical moment. Work zone crashes soared during the pandemic and are still rising.
Nate Smith, vice president of engagement for the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA), said he expected construction zone crashes and fatalities to drop during Covid lockdowns because fewer people were on the roads. “Of course, the opposite was true,” he added.
In 2020, 857 people were killed in work zone crashes, according to the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse.
Last year an Associated General Contractors of America survey found, 64% of highway contractors reported that motor vehicles had crashed into their construction work zones—a 4% increase over 2021—and 7% reported that workers were killed, while 15% reported drivers or passengers were killed.
“It was a real missed opportunity to really drive down fatalities over a two-and-a-half-year period,” said Smith. “We’re starting behind the eight-ball coming out of the pandemic.”
National leaders are sounding the alarm about the problem, which was underscored by a horrific work zone crash last month that killed six road workers in Maryland.
In their joint bipartisan resolution to recognize April 17 through April 21 as National Work Zone Awareness Week, Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) describe “an epidemic that devastates Americans and their families from every state.”
InfraTalk America publisher Greg Nadeau, a former state DOT Deputy Commissioner who rose to serve as Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, said in an interview that “speed has become a pandemic of its own on the nation’s highways.”
Targeting Safer Driving
National Work Zone Awareness Week starts today (Monday, April 17) with a safety training day and ends on Friday, April 21, with a moment of silence for the construction workers who have lost their lives in work zone incidents. The week’s theme — “You play a role in work zone safety. Work with us.” — is aimed squarely at automobile drivers whose distracted, impaired driving and excessive speed cause crashes that can be deadly to both workers and motorists.
All 50 states have “slow down, move over” laws requiring drivers to slow down and/or put a lane between them and first responders or tow trucks on the side of the road. However, many don’t extend that courtesy to road workers. States are starting to enact stricter laws to keep workers safe; in 2019, Missouri enacted a law allowing the state to revoke the drivers’ license of anyone who hits a highway or utility worker in a work zone.
The Role of Positive Work Zone Protection
Contractors and government agencies are continuously retraining workers about safety procedures and technology, Smith said, and ATSSA is pushing worker safety legislation at both the state and federal level. Attenuators and rumble strips that alert motorists to upcoming work zones, automatic flagging devices, increased police presence and automatic speed enforcement in work zones, are all measures that could make a difference at state and local levels.
Nadeau said state DOTs need to build the cost of more hardened barriers and work zone protection into the bid process. This would require all contractors to include those costs from the start. “We’ve just got to put work zone protection in a different category and not leave it subject to the competitive pressures of the bidding environment,” he added.
Infrastructure Act Initiatives
At the federal level, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has generated several new worker safety initiatives that could make a difference. These measures include federal reimbursement for automated enforcement, as well as a safety contingency fund that contractors can tap into to pay for personnel, equipment and technology that will make work zones safer.
In March, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced that projects designed to improve safety for workers and drivers in work zones at five state DOTs, including a multi-state collaboration deploying automated truck-mounted crash attenuators, would be part of the first round of grants through the new $500 million Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) Grants Program. This initiative was established by the Infrastructure Act.
“I’m optimistic,” Smith said. “When you look at the numbers, we have a problem in this country when it comes to work zone safety and road safety in general. But I feel like we’re at a turning point for the better. And I’m excited to see what the next decade brings.”