Road work zones are among the most dangerous of all construction job sites, largely because they're literally within arm’s length of the general public.

Although work zones exist anywhere where there is construction or industrial work going on, most sites are physically separated by fences and yards. The workers who have access to those sites have been trained in work zone awareness. Their jobs depend on adhering to the rules, procedures, and following the guidance of signal persons.

Road crews, however, work directly in public spaces. They resurface roads, fix signs and barriers, install traffic lights, fix power lines, and build ramps, intersections, and bridges – all while the traffic is kept flowing. Often, they have to block off lanes and maneuver large machinery in very tight spaces.

The Source of Danger in Road Work Zones

Danger is everywhere on a worksite. But no excavator, bulldozer, or jackhammer poses quite the degree of unpredictable danger as the public on the other side of the traffic cones. Whether they're driving trucks, cars, or riding motorcycles, these motorists are the most likely potential cause of injury and death for road workers. They are also responsible for their own high fatality rate. According to the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA), there were 669 deaths in roadway work zones in 2014 alone, and most of those were the motorists themselves (for another roadwork hazard, see Summertime Roadwork and Heat Stroke).

Safety and Traffic Calming Procedures

Road construction companies are reminded regularly about the commonsense procedures designed to increase safety and drive down accident numbers. They include:

  • Deploying a traffic control plan that gives drivers sufficient time and adequate signage so that they can prepare for the oncoming closure, including merging and slowing down
  • Employing flaggers and bright directional lights
  • Using solid physical barriers in place of cones, or using a lot of cones to create a “virtual wall"

Work Zone Safety Challenges

Despite these measures, the accidents still happen in great numbers. Work zone awareness struggles to keep pace with the distracted and impatient driver. Why?

Distracted Drivers

It has been proven many times over by many different organizations that texting, or even using a hands-free phone, while driving leads to a level of distraction that meets the standards of impairment.

People who text spend many seconds looking at the screen of their phone as they read or type messages. But a car moving through a work zone at 40 mph is still traveling at 59 feet per second. That’s almost the length of a transport truck. Even three seconds spent not looking at the road means driving a car blind through very narrow, rough lanes for the length of three tractor-trailers.

Even drivers talking on a hands-free phone do not have the undivided concentration required for defensive driving. It is all divided up by the conversation. These drivers will negotiate the work zone on "autopilot," increasing the odds that they will lose control of the vehicle by hitting uneven pavement or even one of the cones (for related reading, see Distraction, Fatigue, and Impairment: What Any Safety Professional Can Do).

Impatient Drivers

Many drivers feel personally affronted when construction holds them up. They will try to drive quickly through the work zone to make up for the delay caused by merging traffic and road work machines. They will ignore flaggers, since they have no legal power, and will try anything to get further ahead, including sneaking back through the cones.

Impaired Drivers

Some drivers are impaired by drugs or alcohol, which slows their reaction time and makes it difficult for them to accurately judge their distance from workers and obstructions.

Unaware Drivers

Other drivers are simply unaware of the nature and the dangers of work zones. They have no awareness of the impact that chopped-up roads, slow-moving machinery, and fast-merging dump trucks can have. They have not learned how to drive defensively and may not know how to handle driving through the narrowed space.

Technological Assistance for Work Zone Safety

It may be time for new measures in the battle for safety and work zone awareness, and these may come in the form of an app. The American Traffic Safety Services Association offers a Work Zone Safety app that helps site engineers:

  • “Quickly determine both minimum device spacing and minimum number of devices needed for merging, shifting, shoulder, or flagger operations
  • Calculate the number of devices needed
  • Customize your results to incorporate local standards
  • Learn about and apply best practices for stationary lane closures and short duration operations.
  • Set up a temporary traffic control area.”

With increased use and refinement, paired with greater access to real-time traffic data, apps like these might help us take a great leap forward in communicating directly with drivers through their cars, or adapting roadside construction sites and detours on a more timely and dynamic basis without jeopardizing safety or efficiency.

Conclusion

It's important to remember that, unlike the people in the work zone, the general public has not received safety training. Since they confront work zones unprepared, they essentially need to be walked through it. So, make sure you have all the signs, cones, and flaggers you'll need to guide motorists safely past the work zone so everyone can go on with their day unharmed.