Two months after the deadly Baltimore Beltway crash that killed six highway workers, the Associated General Contractors of America and software company HCSS released state and national work zone safety survey results of construction contractors that reinforced just how deadly work zones are.
More than half of the 732 national respondents reported that in the last year, there was at least one crash at a highway work zone where they manage a construction project, and one-fourth reported five or more crashes, according to the national survey.
In Maryland, 46% of 24 respondents said in the last year, there were at least three crashes into work zones they manage, and 54% of 11 respondents reported that more than one worker died as a result of vehicular crashes, according to Maryland’s survey.
Ken Simonson, chief economist of the contractors association, said the March 22 Beltway crash, which was among the deadlier work zone crashes since 1980, was “much closer to the rule than the exception.”
Not only are work zone crashes deadly to the workers, but they are twice as likely to result in fatalities to drivers and passengers, Simonson said.
As the most dangerous time to drive begins — the summer months — officials with the contractors association and HCSS, which stands for Heavy Construction Systems Specialists, called for action from state and federal governments.
In Maryland, 67% of respondents reported that work zone crashes are at a much higher risk than they were a year ago, and they reported that phones and speeding were the top risk factors, according to the survey. Simonson urged drivers to “stay off the gas and put their phone down when they are in a work zone.”
To make a change in work zone safety, Steve McGough, president and CEO of HCSS, which develops software that helps construction companies streamline operations, said education and enforcement are the main factors. That means requiring defensive driving courses when renewing a license, and making speed enforcement cameras required in all work zones, McGough said.
Only 25 states have speed work zone cameras and Maryland is one of them. There are eight automated speed enforcement cameras in Maryland, none of which were in the Baltimore Beltway work zone at the time of the March crash.
The objective of speed cameras is “not to give out tickets,” said Brian Turmail, public affairs and strategic initiatives vice president of the contractors association. “The objective here is to get people to slow down. The fact that everyone is now warned in advance that there’s a speed camera at the front of a work zone inevitably leads to slower and safer operating.”
McGough said nationally, Oklahoma has one of the best approaches to combat distracted driving in work zones.
Tom Robins, founder of WorkZoneSafe.com, focused nationally and on Oklahoma, said to call distracted driving what it is: digitally drunk driving.
“We have flooded our roadways with digitally drunk drivers, and they’re learning that behavior when they’re young and they’re bringing that behavior with them in their car,” Robins said. “That travels with them either as a passenger or as a driver and it’s showing up in our work zones.”
Robins said the U.S. is doing “nothing” to address how to improve highway safety, and if that continues to happen, the next five years will represent the highest number of crashes, injuries and fatalities on highways.
“It is not normal for an industry out front of their headquarters or for state agencies, such as we have here in the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, to have to construct a memorial and annually gather because so many are injured, impacted or killed just because they went to do their job and were unable to safely come home,” Robins said.
In mid March, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report that stated the two vehicles involved were traveling at speeds greater than the posted speed limit — 55 mph — faster than the speed of the adjacent traffic, and that the car entered the work zone through an opening in jersey barriers. It did not cite distracted driving as a cause.
The full investigation that will look into the cause of the crash will be completed within 12 to 24 months, Peter Knudson, an NTSB public affairs officer previously told The Banner.
Robins launched WorkZoneSafe.com to teach teenagers to drive confidently and safely through work zones. He worked with a curriculum director and created a national course for teenagers to take, and after completion, they could win a $500 scholarship.
He said 3,000 teenagers in Oklahoma voluntarily took the online program and learned about speeding, distractions, seatbelts and even the names and faces of people affected or killed by digitally drunk driving.
To deter distracted driving and lower the risk of highway work zone crashes, the most requested calls to action from contractors who responded to the AGC’s Maryland survey included greater police presence, automatic ticketing for speed violations and work zone cameras, stricter laws, fines and penalties and stricter enforcement.
Matt Musgrave, deputy executive director of the contractors association’s Vermont chapter, wanted people to think about what it’s like for highway workers, and to ultimately put their phones down, and slow down in work zones.
“Think about being on the side of the road with 75 mile an hour vehicles going past you on one side within two feet,” Musgrave said. “On the other side of you two feet away, you’ve got a 20 foot deep ditch with a giant excavator clog going next to you while you’re doing that, and you’re wearing a protective face mask that you’re required to wear protection from silica dust in the air, so your eyesight is limited, and you’re bumping shoulders with other people doing the work — that gets exponentially worse.”