by Tom Kuennen

September 2001 -- During the 2001 road work season, the industry stepped up its war on work zone fatalities and injuries with new efforts at the national level, including a House subcommittee hearing on work zone safety, the nation's second annual National Work Zone Safety Week in April, and the creation of a new traveling memorial to workers and drivers killed in work zones.

o Efforts at the national level were complemented by activities in many states.

o Extensive media coverage of the second National Work Zone Safety Week, from April 9-13, brought the deaths of the 868 men, women, and children to American living rooms.

o In early July, a widely attended Work Zone Safety Summit was held to develop recommendations that elected officials, transportation and law enforcement agencies, and construction companies can use to make construction zones safer for drivers and workers.

o And on July 24, major players in road construction provided testimony on work zone safety for Rep. Tom Petri's (R-Wis.) House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

The purpose of Petri's hearing was to investigate the recent increase in fatalities and injuries in highway work zones, and to provide oversight on government and industry efforts to protect motorists and construction workers.

"The subcommittee is making this issue a priority now and in the future," staff remarked. "We are interested in a variety of efforts -- employee training, driver education, traffic law enforcement, application of new technology, better construction planning, and other ideas -- to sharply reduce motor vehicle accidents in work zones."

The current federal legislation (TEA-21, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century) authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to use highway safety research funds to provide training in work zone safety management.

In 1999, the latest year for which statistics are available, 868 people were killed and over 39,000 injured in car and truck accidents in highway work zones. The number of fatalities represents a 12 percent increase in one year.

"Most of the victims were automobile drivers (and their passengers) who failed to prepare for the work zones when they approached them," the subcommittee said. "Often the tragedies involved highway construction workers who had little more than hard hats for protection and, by the very nature of their jobs, risked their lives every day to build and maintain our highways and bridges."

AASHTO steps out in work zones

Work zone injuries and fatalities constitute a genuine problem that won't improve without concerted action, said Dean Carlson, Kansas Secretary of Transportation, and 2001 president, American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO), to the House subcommittee July 24.

"As president of AASHTO I have designated safety as a top priority," Carlson told the congressmen. "Keeping work zones safe is a key challenge that requires attention to work-zone design, training and education for workers and the public, and strong enforcement."

There are hundreds of work zones during the construction season in each state, Carlson said, with 500 in New York, 150 in Pennsylvania, 400 in Illinois, and 500 in Kansas. "In California, one in every five miles of highway is slated for work within the next five years. These numbers can only grow as we bring the benefits of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century to our customers."

Our failure in constructing new highway capacity to match vehicles on the roadway has compounded the danger of work zones. "With vehicle miles traveled far exceeding road miles added, there are also just more cars per lane-mile, which tends to make drivers impatient to lose roadway, even temporarily, to road work."

AASHTO has a special task force exploring work zone safety through the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), and AASHTO is updating a best-practices publication on work zones.

Also, Carlson said, recent amendments were made to the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices, with the aim of reducing delays around work zones. That's one of 22 key emphasis areas addressed in the Strategic Highway Safety Plan adopted by AASHTO and many other organizations.

Public awareness key

Increased public awareness is a key factor in improving work zone safety, Carlson said, adding AASHTO is a founding sponsor of National Work Zone Awareness Week. "[It's] drawn significant media attention in the two years of its observation," Carlson said. "Participation by the states has been virtually universal, and governors or lieutenant governors have participated in many states."

Excellent public information campaigns have been created by several states, and are being shared through AASHTO for the benefit of other states and safety groups, he said. "We work continuously with our membership to share success stories other state DOTs can emulate.

"AASHTO's member DOTs have shown strong leadership on this issue," Carlson said. "In cooperation with such groups as ARTBA, AGC and ATSSA, we are researching the structure of work zones and improving the training and equipment used by workers to constantly improve the state of the art."

Regional efforts pay off

A regional undertaking of work zone safety research in the Midwest is paying off, said Ian MacGillivray, P.E., director, Research Management Division Iowa Department of Transportation.

In 1997, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas pooled their resources and founded the Midwest States Smart Work Zone Deployment Initiative (MwSWZDI). In 2001, Wisconsin joined the initiative. Other partners include FHWA, universities and private sector manufacturers.

"The primary goal of this cooperative/collaborative initiative is to improve safety and efficiency of traffic operations and highway workers in work zones, MacGillivray told the congressmen. "By pooling our resources these Midwest states are able to initiate and fund work zone related research that is beyond the capabilities of any individual agency.

Technologies reviewed include:

o Condition-responsive traffic management systems

o In-vehicle warning systems

o Speed display trailers

o Work zone rumble strips

o Illuminated raised pavement markers, and

o Merge control systems.

Also, Iowa highway contracts require the use of contractor staff providing 24-hour traffic control monitoring and incident response on complex, high traffic volume projects, he told the congressmen. Iowa also requires contractors to have an ATSSA-certified traffic control technician (or equivalent training) on staff.

In Iowa, the use of truck-mounted crash attenuators (TMAs) on maintenance vehicles has also helped to improve employee safety. "These crashworthy attenuators have saved department employees from serious injuries that would otherwise have occurred," MacGillivray said. "Many of our interstate maintenance shops have trucks equipped with these safety devices, but funding constraints have limited our ability to expand the fleet of TMAs to other shops and more vehicles."

Zone format threatens workers

In congressional testimony, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) observed that mobile construction equipment also poses threats to construction workers.

ARTBA exhibited data from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) 1992 to 1998 which show that 19 percent of worker deaths in the heavy and highway construction industry were caused when construction vehicles and equipment struck pedestrian workers.

The only greater hazard is that posed by motorists who intrude into the work, which accounts for 23 percent of the fatalities. Recent data trends indicate that primary cause is shifting, with more workers being killed by construction vehicles and equipment than motorists, ARTBA said.

"We in the industry -- the private sector, state departments of transportation and the federal government -- collectively have a moral obligation to ensure that we are carrying out this work in the safest, most efficient manner possible," said John Wight, P.E., executive vice president, HNTB Corp., and 2001 ARTBA chairman.

Wight said efforts to reduce work zone inconvenience for motorists is complicating and constricting the work space for contractors, leading to the increases in nonmotorist-sourced incidents in work zones.

"Large vehicles operating in confined areas, adjacent to pedestrian workers, create situations that place workers at great risk for injuries and fatalities," Wight told Congress. "Night work increases risks to workers because of impaired vision and fatigue, not only from motorists but also from the workers themselves. Moreover, workers are much less likely to be struck by a vehicle intruding the barricades when traffic moves by at 30 miles per hour (mph) as opposed to 65 mph."

ARTBA has used its unique structure to address roadway work zone safety challenges for decades. This has been a particular emphasis of its Transportation Safety Policy Advisory Council, organized in 1977, and Traffic Safety Industry Membership Division, organized in 1979.

In 1986 ARTBA teamed with FHWA and AASHTO to organize the first-ever National Conference on Roadway Work Zone Safety. And in 1997, ARTBA teamed with FHWA to create the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse (

ARTBA and the National Safety Council have just released a safety-training program targeted directly at the roadway construction industry. This ground-breaking training program combines work zone traffic control practices with worker safety principles to create safer work zones.

AGC's Safety Summit tips

The Work Zone Safety Summit coordinated and hosted by AGC on July 10 was a source of recommendations, and AGC conveyed them to Petri's panel at the hearing.

"The summit was a roll-up-your-sleeves work session that was organized to bring together all of the key stakeholders to develop a national strategy to address the problem," said Bob Desjardins, Cianbro Corp., 2001 president of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC).

"We had a tremendous turn out," Desjardins said. "It was a tremendous success and produced over 50 solid recommendations." AGC reviewed the suggestions, and put together an action plan, including:

o Work zone safety management must be elevated to high importance  among construction companies as it is with Cianbro, the DOTs, and law  enforcement

o ITS technology should be more widely used to positively impact work  zone safety, to warn motorists of what type of work zone is ahead, and whether there are alternate routes they can use

o Trained law enforcement officers and enforcement should be used more frequently

o Increased use of communications with the public, trucking industry and workers on work zone safety issues

o Driver education programs, including those for new, experienced, and truck drivers, should include work zone safety as a specific topic

o Bid items for safety programs should be included in construction  contracts. "The idea is that safety items should be a priority and the money for the safety items should be taken off the top of the project cost," Desjardins said. "This would take the safety items out of the competitive bid process. Moreover, it would ensure that all contractors use the necessary safety  precautions, and that there is no penalty for using additional safety measures if the job warrants it."

o Lastly, DOTs should consider closing the road as a first option when  planning construction activities. This will make the work zone safer and allow the projects to be completed much faster.

ATSSA urges research funds

ARTBA's observation that making work zones easier for motorists is endangering workers was echoed by testimony of the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA).

"We at ATSSA fear that increased roadway construction and reconstruction, with an emphasis on nighttime work zones and increased speeds through work zones, will lead to a continued rise in the number of annual work zone fatalities from their current level of 868," said Dennis Sterndahl, president of Sterndahl Enterprises, and 2001 president of ATSSA.

ATSSA recommended to Congress that:

o Persons involved in the highway work zone receive appropriate training

o It should fund efforts designed to change the public perception regarding the important role of work zones in maintaining and improving our nation's roadway system

o The industry needs to analyze work zone crash data and fund research to improve work zone practices

o Maximum protection in "high-risk" work zone situations be implemented on federal-aid funded projects, and

o Government should reduce motorist speeds and encourage respect for work zone signage by engaging law enforcement to strictly enforce speed limits.

ATSSA boosts 'Awareness Week'

In December 1999, ATSSA, FHWA and AASHTO joined together to create the "National Work Zone Awareness Week" as an ongoing effort to promote community awareness and involvement for this issue.

This national campaign, scheduled for the second week of April every year, is a coast-to-coast effort to help increase public awareness of work zone safety needs from the driver as well as the highway worker perspective.

For the special week, ATSSA, FHWA and AASHTO participate in national and local activities to help educate the nation on work-zone related injuries and fatalities, and the hazards and dangers that can be encountered and avoided.

For the 2001 kick-off event on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a field of 868 orange traffic cones topped with black memorial ribbons commemorated the 868 work zone fatalities last year.

"Motorists should drive carefully through highway construction zones both for their own safety and the safety of construction workers," said Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta at the kick-off event. "Safety is everyone's responsibility, and I especially commend our partners for their efforts in helping everyone become aware of the need to exercise caution in highway work zones." 

States promoting NWZAW include Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.

ATSSA also is coordinating development of a National Work Zone Memorial, which will raise public awareness of work zone danger, while recognizing all of those killed in work zones, both motorist and worker. The National Work Zone Memorial will be unveiled in April 2002 during National Work Zone Awareness Week activities in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

It will be made available to anyone in the roadway industry or interested communities nationwide as a "traveling" exhibition to be used in schools, in community centers, in DOT lobbies, at airports, rest stops, or as part of ceremonies launching new roadway construction projects nationwide.

Action at state level

All this activity at the national level was complemented by activity at the state level.

o Wisconsin's "100 Days of Safety" campaign opened just before July 4 and was to end with the Oct. 10 nationwide event initiated by AASHTO, "Put the Brakes on Fatalities Day." It's part of a year-round campaign to increase driver safety awareness.

o Illinois' new campaign. The DOT there noted a rise in work zone fatalities to a total of 37 for the year 2000 and concluded its longtime PR campaign had gone stale, AASHTO's Carlson reported.

Illinois replaced it with two new messages in a carrot-and-stick strategy. Signs, done in children's scrawl, ask drivers to "Please slow down, my daddy [or mommy] works here." These signs were coupled with radio and TV ads featuring actual children of state DOT workers.

For hard-boiled drivers, Illinois posts an automated sign at the front end of some work zones that tells how many speeding tickets have been issued in that zone. The number is updated daily as state police pursue a zero-tolerance approach to violations. In July, Illinois work zone fatalities had declined to 16, compared with 24 same time last year.

o Pennsylvania also implemented a "My Mommy/Daddy Works Here" promotion.

o Georgia: Slow down. The great proportion of persons hurt in work zones are drivers and passengers, not workers. Since 1992, the ratio has consistently been greater than four-to-one.

Georgia is driving this point home in its "Slow Down, It Won't Kill You" campaign, because Georgia DOT found that 70 percent of the drivers in its focus groups believed work zones were more dangerous for the workers, not vehicle occupants. In July in Georgia, fatalities dropped from 91 in 1999 to 74 in 2000.

o Michigan enacts 'Andy's Law'. Under a law signed in late July by Gov. John Engler, Michigan became the first state in the nation to pass a specific measure creating stiffer penalties for motorists who injure or kill highway construction workers.

The bill creates penalties of up to one year in prison for injury and up to 15 years in prison for killing a highway construction or maintenance worker. The bill was strongly supported by the Michigan Road Builders Association.

This bill is referred to as "Andy's Law" by highway safety advocates in recognition of Andrew Lefko, a 19-year-old highway worker who was severely injured during work on the I-275 reconstruction project in 1999. Diane Wasson, Andrew Lefko's mother, testified recently before the House Criminal Justice Committee, and Lefko accompanied his mother to the hearing.

o Missouri enacts stiffer fines. And in late August, Missouri enacted as much as $250 in additional fines for motorists ticketed for speeding or driving in an unsafe manner through Missouri highway construction zones. Signs were going up around the state warning drivers of tougher enforcement and the  stiffer fines for failing to slow down and obey traffic laws.

Rural roads shortchanged in safety?

In the meantime, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report July 16 that could be construed to show that rural roads are being shortchanged in terms of dollars spent vs. urban roads, and that higher fatality rates are the result. But that may not be the right conclusion to make.

The report evaluates federal highway funding and fatalities on a state-by-state basis, and was conducted in response to concerns that inadequate federal funding for rural road improvements contributes to unsafe conditions.

The report, said the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association (, states that from 1992 through 2000, FHWA provided more than $201 billion to states for roadway improvements through a variety of programs and accounts.

During that period, states spent about 59 percent of federal highway funds on urban roads and 41 percent on rural roads. However, although about 60 percent of all vehicle miles traveled are on urban roads, these roads represent about 23 percent of all lane miles in the U.S., with rural roads accounting for about 77 percent of all lane miles.

The greatest disparity in funding per-mile for FY '99 was between urban freeways, where states spent $80,900 per mile, and rural local roads, where states spent about $100 per mile.

The report found that based on miles traveled, the fatality rate from traffic accidents on rural roads was nearly 2.5 times greater than the rate on urban roads. In addition, the analysis found that although three times more miles were traveled on urban interstate highways than on rural local roads, rural local roads had a fatality rate more than six times greater.

Before concluding that rural roads are being shortchanged vs. urban roads on a mileage basis, and people are dying because of that, a reader must realize that the remoteness of rural roads makes reporting of, and response to, accidents more difficult than in urban areas. The longer response time leads to higher mortality rates. Also, rural locales may not have the state-of-the-art in trauma care that urban hospitals can provide.

Vast distances in rural areas encourage excessive speeds, making accidents more lethal. Lower incomes in rural areas also are associated with vehicles in poor repair and lower rates of seat belt use.

The issue is not the pitting of rural vs. urban interests, but increased funding and enhanced project delivery for roadwork, both rural and urban. A rising tide lifts all boats; we only have to make sure the floodgates are open.


Copyright 2004 by ExpresswaysOnline.
Portions of this material appeared in Pavement Magazine.