Efforts Lag to Improve Safety at Work Zones

Posted December 21, 2009 By Mike McIntire, the New York Times   road workBy the time Bryan Lee headed to work along Highway 51 in Texas on Sept. 15, 2005, the road-building industry and its government overseers were painfully aware of a deadly, though easily corrected, construction hazard: pavement-edge drop-offs.   Accidents involving dangerous drop-offs kill about 160 people and injure 11,000 each year. Numerous studies have shown that the steeper the drop-off, the greater the danger.   In Texas in 2002, seven people were killed when a car slipped off a sharp edge of roadway and onto the shoulder, causing the driver to overcorrect into the path of a minivan. Four years before, six people died in a succession of accidents in another Texas work zone, where contractors had failed to smooth out the edge of a newly paved lane.   Yet when the contractors repaving Highway 51 west of Fort Worth discovered that they lacked sufficient equipment, they decided to pave only part of the roadway and finish the rest days later, leaving a sharp drop-off that ran for miles within the travel lane. A state inspector warned that it was dangerous, but no one — not his superiors, not the contractor — listened.   Two days after that warning, Mr. Lee, a 26-year-old oil field worker with a wife and two young sons, rounded a curve in the early-morning darkness, and the wheels of his Suzuki motorcycle slid off the asphalt edge. He tumbled from the bike and was run over by a pickup truck.   The deadly accident was one of thousands in highway work zones across the country that have killed at least 4,700 people — more than two a day — and injured 200,000 in the last five years alone. Ubiquitous annoyances of on-the-go American life, work zones are sometimes death traps, too.   Behind this human toll is a litany of mundane hazards: concrete barriers in the wrong position, obsolete lane markings left in place, warning signs never deployed.   Yet there are virtually no laws or regulations mandating safety measures in work zones. There are standards, but they are loosely enforced and differ from state to state. As a result, there are few penalties levied against contractors when, because of ignorance, carelessness or a desire to save money, guidelines are violated. Problem contractors often just keep on getting hired, and dangerous practices remain uncorrected, sometimes for years.   Ultimately, the hazards persist through a kind of collective indifference, a presumption that, given the crush of traffic and the vagaries of driver behavior, accidents happen.   But interviews and internal government documents, along with a review of more than 100 legal cases involving work zone crashes around the country, illuminate a more complex calculus of blame — one that often encompasses the actions of the construction industry and its regulators as well.   “A lot of work-zone crashes are entirely preventable,” said David Holstein, Ohio’s chief traffic engineer. “It’s not explainable by just driver error or inattention. We can intervene to keep them from happening.”   After transportation officials in Ohio created a system to monitor work-zone crashes in real time, they were startled to discover that the presence of construction caused accident rates to jump as much as 70 percent, Mr. Holstein said.   “We were seeing that crashes were happening day after day after day, and nothing was being done about it,” he said. “Sometimes there were hundreds of crashes over the life of a project.”   Now the stakes are increasing, as $27 billion from President Obama’s economic stimulus package is prompting a nationwide boom in highway construction. Federal transportation officials are concerned that work-zone fatalities, after declining in recent years along with traffic deaths in general, could rise again.   “The number of people killed as a result of crashes in work zones remains significant,” the Federal Highway Administration says on its Web site. “Safety and mobility impacts from work zones will likely be magnified with the infusion of a large number of new projects.”   Transportation officials are responding pretty much as they always have: by focusing primarily on drivers. States have raised fines for speeding in work zones, cracked down on drunken or distracted drivers and stiffened penalties for killing or injuring highway workers, even though roughly 85 percent of those killed in work zones are motorists.

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