Close Encounters Of The Work Zone Kind

By Steve Hudson | September 28, 2010

Spring is here. That means there's lots of pine pollen on my car. Before I can go anywhere (to the store, to pick up a kid or two, or even fishing) I have to first get rid of the pollen. Otherwise I'll be seeing the world through a powdery golden haze, and all the gold is pine pollen.

But sooner or later I do get the windshield clear. Then I crank up the little red truck and set out, sometimes with Chester the Sheepdog riding along in the front seat (he likes field trips!) and sometimes with the waders tossed in the back and the fly rod strung up and ready to go. Sometimes it doesn't really even matter where I'm going; it's just fun to get out.

From here, pretty much wherever I go means I've got to drive through a construction work zone. This week there's a utility project over on the main road to my favorite lunch spot; last week they were paving the road to the kid's high school. If I'm going south to see the other kid in college, then I can count on several miles of interstate widening — and if I go north to fish for trout I've got to go through some major new-lane construction areas up that way too. All in all, I guess that's a good thing, as it translates into job security for those of us who work one way or another in the construction field.

Inevitably, work zones slow things down (one of those "fleas come with the dog" kind of things, I suppose). If the sheepdog is with me, this isn't a problem. In fact, he told me just the other day that he actually kind of likes the delays. It gives him more time to sit there and look regal (sheepdogs are good at looking regal) as we creep along in traffic, and the folks in the cars in the next lane invariably point and smile and make goofy faces as they ooh and ahh over his cutely fuzzy little face. Chester soaks it all in, tail wagging enthusiastically all the while.

Sometimes I kind of like the delays too. But other times (like when fishing is on the agenda) the delays are first a bit aggravating, then annoying, then maddening, until finally I'm feeling the pressure to put pedal to the metal and zoom on through that construction zone as quick as I can.

Fortunately, I never get to the zooming part. As I've noted before, I'm widely regarded as the slowest driver in all of Fulton County. In fact, I'm one of those folks who start at the posted speed limit and go down from there. That does effectively eliminate the problem of speeding tickets, and if everybody were like me it would probably eliminate a lot of the problems that come from high-speed traffic in construction work zones too.

But many folks, it seems, see the work zone speed limits as starting points from which to work up. I don't need to tell you that; anybody who's been around this industry any time at all knows that that's just the way things are.

But there is a price, and it's sobering.

Teri Pope, the Georgia Department of Transportation's Northeast Georgia District communications officer, and I were communicating about that very subject the other day, and she forwarded along some data that's really kind of scary if you think about it very much.

  • There's one work zone fatality occurs every 8.2 hours nationwide. That's three a day!
  • On top of that, one work zone injury occurs every nine minutes nationally. That's a whopping 160 a day!
  • Three out of four work zone fatalities are not part of the work crew — they are motorists and passengers like you and me.
  • Nationally 1,000 motorists die each year and nearly 40,000 more are injured in work zone related accidents.
  • In just one year, Georgia lost 61 people in work zone accidents — and since 1973 there have been 56 Georgia DOT employees killed in work zones.

Teri called these "cold, hard facts." But they are not just numbers. They're indicators of injuries or deaths in construction work zones. Think about 'em that way for a moment.

You'd think the potential fines would be enough to slow people down. In Georgia, for instance, a person convicted of exceeding the speed limit in a work zone can be fined between $200 and $2,000.

But that doesn't seem to work — maybe because people just don't think about it.

To help bring the subject to the forefront as spring moves on and we enter the summer vacation season, Teri's group at GDOT marked national Work Zone Safety Week last month by hosting a media day alongside Interstate 85. Members of the media were invited to "come inside the cone zone" and hear from workers on the dangers that construction zones pose to highway workers as well as to motorists. The event drew significant attention.

Among those present to talk with the media was 30-year-old Josh Cofer, a four-year veteran of GDOT, who shared some personal stories of close encounters of the work zone kind. Some involved careless motorists, and others involved careless contractors — and one story he told involved both. On the I-85/Georgia 316 project, for example, he was working in an area closed to traffic where there shouldn't have been any traffic at all. But as he tells it, a contractor in a truck with flashing lights (but not paying attention) drove into the area behind the barricade — and he was followed by another non-contractor vehicle. Josh and two other employees working there were very nearly hit; the drivers said they were just not paying attention.

Clearly, work zones can be "dangerous even when no work is happening." But whether work is going on or not, work zones call for special caution — on the part of drivers, GDOT employees and contractor personnel alike.

"Because of changing conditions, uneven pavement, barrels, signs, equipment — and more — work zones are dangerous," Pope said — and even though they are dangerous for workers, they're even more so for drivers.

"Drivers are 85 percent more likely to get hurt driving through a work zone," she noted, "than I would be working in a work zone!"

This summer, there will be lots of work going on along interstates and other roadways in the southeast. If you're driving, be especially careful in the work zones; if you're working on one of the projects, keep your eyes and ears open — and remind your employees to do the same.