A constant whooshing sound rose and fell in waves. The clunk of rubber tires hitting steel bridge connector beams sent rumbles across the overpass on which state transportation officials stood.

“We can hear some of the things that they [highway construction workers] listen to while they’re out there working diligently. What we haven’t heard yet is the screeching of tires,” Maryland State Police Superintendent Lt. Col. Roland Butler Jr. told a gathering of reporters, officials and highway workers convened on an Interstate 70 on-ramp that overlooks I-695, the Baltimore Beltway. About 15 minutes later, police escorted a line of construction vehicles along the beltway below as part of a Unity Ride to honor lives lost in work zone crashes.

Work Zone Awareness Week has a more urgent feel this year, coming just weeks after six construction workers filling potholes on the Francis Scott Key Bridge died when a massive container ship struck it, toppling the 47-year-old structure. That disaster came just days after the one-year anniversary of the deadliest work zone crash in Maryland history, a collision that caused a speeding car to spin out and strike six construction workers on I-695, not far from where the officials gathered. All six were killed.

“Our work must continue to improve and evolve,” said Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld, who highlighted these tragedies as well as two additional incidents in the past year that claimed the lives of transportation workers. “Sadly, the tragedies have not stopped.”

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A large white sign displaying hundreds of names is displayed under a white tent.
A sign created by the American Traffic Safety Services Foundation that lists and honors the names of transportation workers killed in work zones was displayed on April 16, 2024, for Work Zone Safety Awareness Week. (Daniel Zawodny)

“These are crashes, not accidents,” and the result of poor driver choices, said Motor Vehicles Administrator Chrissy Nizer.

Preliminary data indicates that at least 610 individuals died on Maryland’s roadways last year — the highest total in more than a decade — and 138 have died so far in 2024, Nizer said.

Butler said that there were almost 7,000 work zone crashes resulting in 44 deaths between 2018 and 2022. His troopers have issued more than 14,000 warnings and citations in work zones since March 2023, part of a statewide increase of enforcement in work zones.

Nizer and other officials emphasized the personal responsibility of drivers to help make work zones safer. As part of their next public outreach campaign, the Maryland Department of Transportation is partnering with local sports stars to serve as spokespeople for their message to slow down, drop the phone and drive safer. Baltimore Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman, Hall of Famer Cal Ripken and retired Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith will soon be delivering just that message across billboards and in recorded PSAs.

At Tuesday night’s home game between the Orioles and Minnesota Twins, a family member of one of the construction workers killed last year while performing work on the inside shoulders of I-695 will throw out the first pitch, Nizer told The Baltimore Banner.

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“They were doing their jobs, serving their community and working to make Maryland better and have a better transportation system,” said State Highway Administrator William Pines.

On March 22 of last year, two drivers traveling more than double the 55 mph speed limit crashed, sending one careening into the median area between loops of the Baltimore Beltway and killing six construction workers. Concrete barriers and a smattering of orange construction barrels remain along that section of the beltway; transportation officials have yet to schedule the road work to begin again. The work is one section of a larger project that will convert the inside shoulders of roughly half of the beltway into travel lanes during rush hour.

A map of Baltimore City and part of Baltimore County with color-coded sections of Interstate 695 that shows where roadwork is happening.
Construction crews are tackling a multiyear project to open the inside shoulder along both directions of the northern half of the Baltimore Beltway to through traffic during peak travel hours. (Maryland State Highway Administration)

One of the drivers, Melachi Duane Darnell Brown, 20, of Windsor Mill, pleaded guilty to six counts of negligent vehicular manslaughter last month and is serving 18 months in prison. The driver that struck and killed the workers, Lisa Adrienne Lea, then 54, of Randallstown, is due back in court next month.

The National Transportation Safety Board, the investigatory body that determines responsibility and makes recommendations in such crashes and disasters, should publish its full report within the next year.

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Overhead footage of crash on I-695 that killed six highway workers.
Overhead footage of crash on I-695 that killed six highway workers.

“I wish I could stand here and say this kind of danger is rare, but it’s not,” said Robert Lewis, a member of the State Highway Administration’s maintenance team. “I could spend the next hour telling you story after story of all the close calls that we have experienced.”

One day in February 2023, he and his team were on the side of a state road in Frederick County picking up litter — wearing high-visibility vests and “doing everything right,” as he said — when they had to jump out of the path of an out-of-control dump truck that crashed into the work zone.

“Behind every work zone tragedy, there are families shattered, futures altered, dreams forever changed,” said Maryland Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller, a former traffic engineer. Appointed by Gov. Wes Moore, Miller led the Work Zone Safety Work Group that issued a series of recommendations last fall for improving work zone safety.

Some of those recommendations were passed legislatively in the Maryland Road Worker Protection Act, signed into law by Moore this month. It will increase the citation amount for speeding in a work zone and scale it based on the severity of the infraction. The citation amount also doubles when workers are present at the time of the infraction. The current citation amount is $40.

The legislation also removes the requirement that speed cameras in work zones be operated by a person, opening the possibility of automated cameras. Work zones can now have multiple cameras in the same zone — some construction projects, like the ongoing I-695 work in progress during last year’s disaster, include work zones that are multiple miles long.

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The only acceptable number of deaths on Maryland’s roadways is zero, said Nizer. But that’s a lofty goal for a state that averaged more than 109,000 auto crashes per year between 2018 and 2022.

As reporters left the press conference filtering off the ramp and back onto I-70, an apparent crash between two vehicles on the opposite side of the road had traffic backed up.

Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for the The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America. He is a Baltimore area native and graduated with his master's degree in journalism from American University in 2021. He is bilingual in English and Spanish and previously covered immigration issues.

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