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OP-ED: It’s transportation safety awareness month

SC2013_DJC_320x320With spring temperatures finally on the rise and more sun in our forecast, construction work across the region is in full swing. Across the city and up and down the I-5 corridor, drivers are seeing a large number of work zones on their daily commutes.

We are all used to seeing the flashing amber lights and the orange construction cones, but what can we do to ensure everyone stays safe as the highway construction season gets under way?

Construction on our roads and highways is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. The risk of death on a highway construction job is seven times higher than for an average worker.

There are hundreds of active work zones in Oregon. The sheer number of work areas dramatically increases the danger to workers from inattentive drivers. National studies show that driver inattention is the leading cause of work zone crashes; speeding ranks second and driving too fast for conditions is a close third.

Time and again, we are reminded that many people do not understand the severity of the situation until after an accident has occurred. Traffic is stopped and people are frustrated. They push or ignore the rules of the road, and most of the time do not realize their commute home is through another person’s place of business.

Work zone crashes are serious for both drivers and workers. In Oregon and nationally, more drivers or their passengers are killed or injured in work zone crashes than workers, and 40 percent of crashes occur in the transition zone before the actual work area. In Oregon, a work zone crash occurs every 18 hours, and each week more than one of those crashes can be attributed to a distracted driver. Examining data from the past five years in Oregon, there is an average of 477 work zone crashes per year – including an average of seven fatal crashes and 20 resulting in serious injury per year.

From a construction perspective, work zone accidents also have a pronounced impact on project schedules and costs. Twenty-five percent of contractors reported that work zone crashes during the past year have forced them to temporarily shut down construction activity. Those delays were often lengthy, as 38 percent of those project shutdowns lasted two or more days (an indirect safety cost).

All work zone accidents are avoidable. To draw attention to this, the Associated General Contractors’ Oregon-Columbia chapter, the Oregon Department of Transportation, the Oregon Trucking Associations, AAA Oregon/Idaho, the Oregon State Police and several area law enforcement agencies have worked together over the past couple of years on the “Orange is your clue” campaign to spread the word about work zone safety.

Throughout the campaign, stakeholders and agencies have stressed that a successful approach to work zone safety must take into consideration:

  • engineering a positive separation between the public and workers on job sites;
  • enforcing appropriate work zone speeds with the presence of police vehicles in and around job sites;
  • educating the public about identifying work zone signs and obeying speed zones; and
  • coordinating emergency medical services between all first responders.

But what can a normal driver on the road do to ensure the safety of highway construction workers?

A construction work zone is considered “operational” 24 hours a day, whether workers are present or not. It is critical for drivers to remember that they are driving through a place of business (and fines are double). Because of this, it is imperative that the public pay attention, slow down and expect delays while approaching work zones, because many can have narrow traffic lanes, closed shoulders and workers close to live traffic.

With free, active maps on every smartphone, there is no reason why drivers should not be aware of conditions facing them. If the maps show delays, plan an alternate route.

Also, the color orange is your clue! When orange signs, barrels, cones and barricades are in place, drivers should SLOW DOWN and watch for highway workers.

Especially as our industry begins its busy season, there are new opportunities to refocus on the importance of safety in work zones and the incredibly critical role the public has in maintaining a safe work environment for our employees. There is nothing more important than for drivers to arrive alive, and for our workers to go home to their families every night.

To learn more about work zone safety, visit

Mike Salsgiver is the executive director of Associated General Contractors’ Oregon-Columbia chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or

This column originally appeared in the Daily Journal of Commerce and can be viewed here (subscription required).

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