Dispelling Highway Construction Zone Myths

May 2010

Accidental deaths in highway construction zones across the United States averaged 850 per year between 2006 and 2008. Injuries in these work zones have been estimated at 40,000 per year. Never are these statistics more important to consider than during major driving holidays such as Memorial Day when construction projects and the number of motorists on the road are both at their peaks.

Myth #1: Construction workers have the highest risk of serious injury in highway work areas.

Myth #2: The most prevalent cause of injury in construction zones is vehicular traffic.

Close to 85 percent of highway construction zone fatalities are those of motorists and/or their passengers. Worker fatalities comprise the remaining 15 percent, and less than a quarter of those deaths are due to pedestrian workers being struck by highway traffic.

If meaningful construction zone safety improvements are to be made, serious attention must be paid to managing traffic flow. The doubling of fines against motorists through work zones is a glorified version of a roadside speed trap; the tactic is geared toward collecting ticket revenue, but does not address the real safety issues.

The prevalent traffic accident in highway construction zones is the rear-end collision, typically caused by sudden changes in the routing of vehicles and immediate reductions in speed. Lanes are narrowed, shifted and merged — often with minimal warning to drivers.

The two most important factors to traffic safety, more so than speed, are attentive drivers and smooth traffic flow. The importance of those factors is further amplified in construction zones. Drivers certainly need to have a heightened awareness of the physical changes to the routing of traffic when approaching and passing through highway work areas, and of the actions/reactions of fellow motorists. But local, state, and federal authorities involved in the construction projects must do a better job of causing as little disruption to traffic flow as possible, and of alerting drivers far in advance of pending pattern changes.