When lockdowns swept the nation last year but construction work was deemed essential, many state DOTs saw a golden opportunity to fast-track jobs that would otherwise snarl traffic and anger motorists. With fewer cars on open roads, the thinking went, workers could do their jobs more efficiently and safely.
"That decrease in traffic would lead you to believe work zone crashes would be down," Steve McGough, president and CEO of construction software company HCSS, said during a webinar announcing the results of a survey his company and the Associated General Contractors of America conducted about highway work zone dangers last month. "They are not."
Sixty percent of highway contractors reported that motor vehicles crashed into their work zones over the past year, the survey found. "Even though during COVID, driving was down, it seems like work accidents are up. What is the correlation?" said Amy Hall, president of Sylvania, Ohio-based Ebony Construction, during the webinar. "People seem to be in a greater hurry to get where they're going."
In 2020, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently reported, 7% more people were killed on U.S. roadways even though Americans drove 13% fewer miles than they did the year before. Bradley Sant, American Road & Transportation Builders Association senior vice president for safety and education, said a "perfect storm" of people driving too fast and more unexpected road closures as construction ramped up caused more work zone crashes, which he's been hearing about anecdotally.
Late last year, a Pew Charitable Trusts report on work zone crashes and fatalities rising despite steep reductions in vehicle miles traveled also blamed speeding, citing examples of vehicles zooming through construction zones at well over 100 miles per hour. Among some of the deadly work zone crashes during the pandemic:
- On March 27, a 44-year-old traffic control flagger was struck and killed by a car in Alexander County, North Carolina.
- On June 9, a 59-year-old construction worker who was directing traffic died after being hit by a car speeding through a work zone in McLean County, Illinois.
- On Aug. 10, a 57-year-old state transportation worker died after his maintenance vehicle, which carried a lighted sign board warning of work being done, was hit from behind by a semi-truck in Henry County, Iowa.
"Speeding has really come to the forefront during COVID," Pam Shadel Fischer, a senior director at the Governors Highway Safety Association, told Pew. "In work zones, that's the worst thing we can have happen."
'The worst of both worlds'
Some states have had it worse than others. In Michigan, motorists struck three county employees and a state contractor in a single week, killing two of them. Five workers were killed on Michigan roads in 2020, up from two in 2019, even as traffic decreased between 20% to 60%, according to the Michigan DOT.
"That’s unacceptable," said Michigan DOT Field Operations Engineer Lindsey Renner, who agrees that people are driving faster and more recklessly than they did before the pandemic. Now that lockdowns are ending and people are going back to work, she said, "I would argue it has rapidly gotten worse, and it’s probably absolutely horrible on those roadways right now."
As traffic has ticked up over the last six to nine months, motorists have not slowed down, Brian Turmail, ACG vice president for public affairs and strategic initiatives, said during the webinar. "We may be getting the worst of both worlds," he said. "Traffic's back — if not to pre-pandemic levels yet, it's rising rapidly — and people have not taken their feet off the gas."
Speeding and distracted driving have increasingly been the biggest problems for road worker safety and will continue to be even as the pandemic subsides, said AGC Chief Economist Ken Simonson.
"We’ve been doing this survey for several years, and frankly, it’s discouraging that the results keep coming back with such a high percent of contractors experiencing injuries, crashes, and even fatalities in work zones," said Simonson. "I hope next year we’ll be able to report some happier results."
Tackling the problem
State DOTs and construction firms, as well as the federal government, are taking steps to improve work zone safety through training programs. The Federal Highway Association has given state and local DOTs more than $40 million since 2005 for specialized work zone safety training, with nearly 4,300 courses provided to 120,000 transportation agency workers.
Officials are also looking at new technology such as wearables that vibrate to let workers know when hazards are near. Sant believes the industry should look to automotive innovations for similar solutions for driver safety. "When I put my car in reverse, if there’s a car or a person walking behind when I’m backing up, I get an alert," he said. "Wouldn’t it be interesting to take that technology and use it to identify people on the side of the road?"
Tougher laws may help too. In the ACG-HCSS survey, 70% of contractors said stricter laws against cell phone use and distracted driving associated with vehicles in work zone construction sites would help reduce the number of highway work zone crashes, injuries and fatalities, and 82% said greater police presence in work zones would improve safety.
Most states have laws requiring drivers to slow down and move over when passing maintenance vehicles, but enforcement is uneven and these protections aren't always extended to work crews. In Missouri, three years after a distracted driver struck and killed a longtime DOT employee in 2016, the governor signed "Lyndon's Law," which allows the state to revoke the driver’s license of anyone who hits a worker in a work zone.
In Michigan, Renner said, "we’re trying the best we can to figure out ways to separate workers from traffic." The state is using automatic flagger-assistant devices that let workers control traffic using tablets by the side of the road and truck-mounted barriers that can be parked to protect workers and driven away when traffic needs to flow. The state is also trying out rumble strips that provide audible alerts to motorists as they approach crews, Renner said.
Michigan has also put out a public service announcement urging residents to be especially cautious when driving through work zones:
Despite these solutions, nothing compares to having a robust police presence at the site, Renner said. Some jurisdictions are combining public awareness campaigns with police crackdowns. In New York, 444 tickets (including 135 for cell phone use and 81 for speeding) were issued as part of Operation Hardhat, an initiative to crack down on work zone violations and highlight safe driving around highway construction that was part of National Work Zone Awareness Week in April.
Six highway workers in state work zones ended up hospitalized during the last week of April due to work zone crashes, according to a statement from the NYS DOT.
Under "Operation Hardhat," police officers were present within the work zones, dressed as highway maintenance workers, to identify motorists who are distracted by electronic devices while driving, disobey flagging personnel, speed through the work zone or violate the state's Move Over Law, which applies to both emergency and maintenance vehicles.
New York State DOT Communications Director Joe Morrissey said cameras in highway work zones and portable rumble strips have also been effective. In the end, he added, it’s simply about drivers slowing down and paying attention.
"Everybody seems to agree — engineers within the MDOT, workers — everybody agrees that use of police enforcement keeps those work zones safer by keeping speeds down," Renner said. "We have a really good partnership with the police. If we can schedule and prioritize using them, it typically goes really well for us."