By Jim Baxter, NMA President
Highway work zone accidents and fatalities have been a hot topic over the past decade. Like most hot topics dealing with highway safety issues the misinformation, distortions, and propaganda are dominant in the headlines.
For example, the political elite would have us believe that highway workers are the primary victims of callus, reckless, and impaired drivers who take their pleasure by careening amongst orange plastic barrels. You might find in a footnote that eight out of nine work zone fatalities are motorists and not workers.
Another even more remote footnote might mention that most of the highway workers that are injured or die in work zone accidents are the victims of direct work related accidents that do not involve passing cars and trucks.
However, not to be dissuaded by facts or reality, state legislators have pumped out numerous laws that increase traffic fines in work zones, assess more fines for harming highway workers, and promote enforcement campaigns aimed at applying these new penalties.
So what are the results of all this legislative flogging?
A recent University of Kansas Study that explored the causes of work zone accidents referenced a telling national statistic:
- In 1999 work zone fatalities totaled 872.
- By 2003 the number of work zone fatalities had increased 18 percent (1028 fatalities).
While it wouldn’t be fair to lay the blame for these deaths on the legislative disinformation campaigns and doubling and tripling of fines, it’s clear they haven’t improved the situation.
To the degree that this political hucksterism displaced and sidetracked programs and policies that could have reduced work zone accidents it IS partially responsible for the end result; more accidents, more injuries and more deaths.
Work zones can be managed to move traffic safely. Better signage, better lane management, better timing of active work projects, relevant speed regulation, and giving first priority to traffic movement during peak travel periods, such as holidays, are all constructive objectives.
These measures, and others, require the recognition that work zone safety is primarily about drivers, not highway workers, and in fact it is the highway project managers that should be held responsible for improving work zone safety.
Certainly, drivers need to exercise caution in construction zones, but they are not in control of the traffic environment, the project managers are. Ladling on more fines and penalties may work, as long as the recipients are the people responsible for managing construction and work zones.