June is National Safety Month. With warmer weather likely (fingers crossed) sticking around for the next few months, construction work sites are popping up all over the place. Up and down the Interstate 5 corridor and across the state, drivers are seeing an increase in the number of work zones they pass through on their daily work commutes, while transporting their children to and from summer camps, and during family road trips.
What is the nature of the problem?
Roadway construction 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 that of an average worker. As some in the industry have put it, working on the side of a busy highway is “like looking down the barrel of a loaded gun all day long.”
Currently, there are over 500 active work zones in Oregon – giving inattentive drivers substantial opportunity to cause a serious problem. National studies show that driver inattention is the leading cause of work-zone-related crashes. Speeding is a close second. Time and again, we are reminded that many people do not understand the severity of the situation until after an accident has occurred.
Work zone crashes are serious for both drivers and workers. Both nationally and in Oregon, more drivers or their passengers than workers are killed or injured in work zone crashes. In fact, 80 percent of work zone fatalities are drivers or their passengers. Over the past 10 years in Oregon, an average of 510 work zone crashes have occurred annually – including an average of 18 resulting in serious injury and nine fatal ones.
Work zone accidents also have a pronounced impact on construction 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).
To draw attention to avoidable work zone tragedies, the Oregon-Columbia chapter of the Associated General Contractors, the Oregon Department of Transportation, the Oregon Trucking Association, AAA Oregon/Idaho, the Oregon State Police, and several area law enforcement agencies gathered at the OR 99W: N. Victory Boulevard to N. Argyle Street Improvement Project in North Portland earlier this month to remind travelers to reduce speed and pay attention when they are in or near a work zone.
Knife River’s regional president, Brian Gray (who also serves as second vice president of AGC), spoke to the media about a company crew member who was struck and killed in a work zone area that was marked well with the appropriate concrete barriers and orange cones. He highlighted that speed and distracted driving are major causes of work zone crashes and are completely preventable.
Gray stressed that a successful approach to work zone safety must be three-pronged:
- Engineering a positive separation between the public and workers on job sites;
- Enforcement of appropriate work zone speeds with the presence of police vehicles in and around job sites; and
- Education of the public on identifying work zone signs and obeying speed zones.
During the event, members of the press were also able to speak to workers who had been hit and injured by drivers while working in highway work zones as well as members of law enforcement on the various strategies they use to both enforce the laws and educate the public.
The officers highlighted that their mere presence is a good deterrent for would-be speeders and inattentive drivers. However, the battle between whether to educate or penalize these unaware drivers is constant and varies depending on the county in which the infraction occurred.
As one officer emphasized, acting after the infraction has occurred is reactive rather than active – the OSP hopes its presence will lead to greater driver awareness in the hundreds of highway work zones around the state and further alter the public’s driving behavior.
What can you do?
A construction work zone is considered “operational” 24 hours a day, even if workers are not present. It is critical for drivers to remember that they are driving through a place of business. Because of this, it is imperative that the public reduce speed and expect delays while approaching work zones because many of these 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. If orange is not an acceptable color, they will likely see red and blue lights shortly after. To save lives and property, all fines double in work zones, including speeding and talking on cellphones.
Change is difficult. It is hard to change the habit prioritizing work zone safety standards when many drivers believe speeding is more important to reach the next business appointment or child’s swim lesson on time. And in the West, drivers tend to believe driving is a right and not a privilege. That thinking is dangerous and potentially deadly.
Especially as our industry enters one of its busiest seasons, 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.
Mike Salsgiver is the executive director of Associated General Contractors’ Oregon-Columbia chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To view the column online, please click here (DJC subscription required).