Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller and Maryland transportation officials on Thursday announced the launch of a work zone safety survey, part of her and Gov. Wes Moore’s efforts to reduce work zone crashes and fatalities on Maryland’s increasingly dangerous roadways.
The survey, which motorists can fill out online or by visiting a local branch of the Motor Vehicle Administration, consists of six questions that gauge drivers’ behaviors around work zones as well as their reactions to potential changes to work zone practices and citation enforcement.
The Governor’s Work Zone Safety Work Group, formed in April of this year and led by Miller, represents a collaboration among transportation experts, law enforcement, and people with experience working in highway construction areas that aims to make work zones safer.
The work group formed shortly after six construction workers were struck and killed when a collision between two speeding vehicles sent one careening into a median work zone on Interstate 695 near I-70 in March.
“I personally know the tireless and challenging work that men and women in the construction industry do every day while placing themselves in harm’s way,” said Miller, citing her 25 years of experience as a transportation engineer. “They deserve to come home to their loved ones at the end of every day like all Marylander workers do.”
She made her remarks while standing with MVA and state highway officials outside of the agency’s headquarters in Glen Burnie.
Two subcommittees, one focused on roadway operations and the other on driver education, are working to present a comprehensive list of action items before the end of the year. That list may include specific legislative changes, tweaks to work zone enforcement and regulations, and more.
One potential legislative change that Miller pointed to was modifying an “outdated” statute that requires speed cameras placed in work zones to be manually operated. The law change could be coupled with an overall increase in the number of automated cameras posted along work zones and increasing the dollar amount for citations.
But Miller and transportation officials made it clear that driver education will be a key focus, citing a need for a “culture shift” on the state’s roadways. They hope the driver survey will assist with that shift. She pointed to a general change in attitudes around seatbelt usage in recent decades as a similar culture shift that created “tremendous progress to improve public safety.”
“When we are talking about bringing a culture shift, we need to get the buy-in of the people that are going to be the users of the transportation network,” said Miller. “Do they feel like it’s being signed properly, do they feel like the citations that are currently issued, is that satisfactory? What are things that would change their behavior?”
“Most crashes are not accidents because the driver behaviors that cause the crashes are preventable,” said William Pines, administrator for the State Highway Administration. Pines called the deadly March crash on I-695 “preventable and horrible,” emphasizing a need for drivers to reduce risky behaviors in general, but especially around work zones.
Howard Bostick, an emergency response technician with the State Highway Administration who also serves on a work group subcommittee, shared his own harrowing past experience of a crash scene downtown. After exiting his tow truck and going through safety protocols, like setting up cones, another emergency responder told him to ‘look out’ as a van came careening into his truck at 70 mph.
“We had van parts come over top my vehicle it was hit so hard,” said Bostick, adding that “my life flashed before my eyes.” He urged Marylanders to complete the new survey and expressed hope that the work group recommendations will lead to safer work zones.
Fatal work zone crashes have been on the rise for more than a decade, according to data from the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse. In 2021, the most recent year for which data was available, there were 874 fatal work zone crashes nationwide — a 10-year high. They comprised 2.2% of all fatal crashes natiowide.
In urban areas between 2019 and 2021, nearly half of all fatal work zone crashes occurred on interstate highways or expressways.
Miller noted that 804 crashes have already occurred along work zones across the state this year — an average of about three per day. “For the people who work at these sites, it’s not a matter of if they will see a crash at their job site, it’s a matter of when,” said Miller, calling the statistics an “unacceptable reality.”
Maryland has seen an uptick in fatal vehicle collisions, following a national trend of more dangerous roads despite people driving less than before the pandemic. The state’s Zero Deaths Maryland online crash database reports 431 traffic fatalities for the year.
MVA Administrator Chrissy Nizer said that the state could see as many as 600 roadway fatalities in 2023 at the current pace. It would mark the first time that the state has logged 600 roadway deaths since 2007. Maryland has only had 50 days without a roadway fatality so far this year, she said.
Nizer said, “They’re not just numbers, they are people.”
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.