This week, March 23-27, is National Work Zone Awareness Week, a time when national and state transportation agencies and associations try to spur greater attention to driving safely through highway work areas.
That may sound simple, but it clearly isn’t. About 600 people die each year from roadway crashes in work zones, when high-speed vehicles can quickly collide with barriers or crews trying to repair existing roads or build new structures.
This video from AASHTO’s Transportation TV shows that often just a few feet or even inches separates road crews from passing cars and trucks, sometimes with only orange cones to remind drivers of their boundaries.
It takes extra attention to move through those areas safely, since the work zones usually require lower speeds and often involve shifting of normal highway lanes.
And since years of constricted spending on infrastructure has left highways in many states needing extra patching — in addition to the annual springtime pothole plague following a harsh winter — repair crews are likely coming soon to a road near you.
There is good news from the safety push. During the life of National Work Zone Awareness Week, which first began in 1997 and marks its 18th birthday this year, the long-term trend of work zone fatalities has declined. For instance, from 2002 to 2008 the number fell 39 percent from nearly 1,200 to 720.
But that progress has not remained steady. When U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced the 2014 observance, he also reported that 2012 had seen an uptick that left 19 more people dead from work zone crashes than in 2011, at 609.
The next year saw some improvement again, but the toll is still very high. During 2013, there were 579 work zone traffic fatalities that included 105 workers. There were also 28,630 work zone injuries.
AASHTO, with the Federal Highway Administration and the American Traffic Safety Services Association are sponsors of the National Work Zone Awareness Week, after formally joining together in 1999 to make it an annual event that is now observed nationwide.
But it had its roots in the Virginia Department of Transportation, when VDOT’s Bristol District focused on work zone safety during April 7-11 that year. This year, Virginia holds a March 24 news conference in Alexandria that marks the national kick0ff of the awareness week.
And on March 24 VDOT will hold a special vigil as it does each year, for roadway workers who lost their lives on the job. This year’s remembrance event is at the VDOT Workers’ Memorial, located on Interstate 64 on Afton Mountain in Albemarle County.