In the Danger Zone

| April 07, 2005

Every professional driver understands the problem of complacency. The eyes and the reflexes can stop responding at optimal levels as the miles pile up. This can be a real problem in areas like highway work zones.

Mike Monseur, deputy director of public affairs for the Illinois Department of Transportation, says there were 4,000 crashes in work zones in 2001, more than 1,000 of them fatal. The number of fatalities is up 65 percent from just five years before. Twenty-two percent of those fatal crashes in work zones involved trucks.

Though you may be safe in your big rig, those around you don’t have the protection of tons of metal. About 90 percent of construction zone fatalities are motorists. Construction zone workers are involved in six times more fatalities than workers in other industries, according to J.J. Keller. Like truck drivers, who statistically have the most dangerous job in America, construction workers die in their work environment at an alarming rate.

One of the main contributing factors to the volatility of construction zones is merging. Traffic funnels from two or three lanes to one, creating a “choke point” where tempers flare and drivers are distracted by an up tick in activity that seems to come at them from all sides at once.

Dan Metcalf, a long time independent owner-operator, rates choke point aggression as the primary problem in work zones. “People continue to pass even though there are warning signs about work zones far in advance,” Metcalf says. “They create jams and make a dangerous situation even more dangerous.”

But sometimes warning signs – or the lack thereof – are part of the problem. According to J.J. Keller’s safety video, “Extreme Road Work,” the average first warning on approaching a work zone is a mere 1,500 feet, or 20 seconds at highway speeds. By the time a driver checks his mirrors for oncoming traffic, orients himself to this traffic, decides a course of action and implements that action, much of that 20 seconds is history.

Flaggers and other workers on the road in advance of the actual construction zone are particularly at risk in this situation. If you’ve been traveling too close to the vehicle in front of you, using your time and hazard-perception skills to check the total environment may bring you perilously close to that front running vehicle.

Like winter driving, where conditions change suddenly and drastically, the best plan is to stay out of situations in which survival skills and intuitive decision-making are necessary. The Keller video stresses being prepared long before encountering work zones.
Some atlases offer valuable information about work zone locations. Rand McNally updated its 2003 Motor Carriers Road Atlas to include state departments of transportation websites for information on road construction. Drivers can visit www.mcra.randmcnally.com for additional updates. Rand McNally’s RouteTools – Professional Driver Edition software (www.trucking.randmcnallly.com) can help drivers identify works zones to avoid unnecessary delays.

Routing and mapping software companies like ProMiles (www.truckmiles.com) also offers state DOT web links. Trucking website eTrucker.com also provides road updates. Also, many states, like New York, have AM highway advisory radio frequencies, according to Peter Graves, public information officer for the New York DOT.

If you are caught unaware at a choke point or in a work zone, your chance of incident increases exponentially. The inattention brought on by lack of sleep or simply by driving long hours becomes more dangerous when work zones seemingly appear out of nowhere.
When approaching construction sites, your first priority should be to slow down. Make sure there is a sufficient front cushion between your truck and the preceding vehicle.

The interior space of construction zones has its own share of hazards. Construction equipment can move into the roadway or a worker can forget his position and step a little too far toward the travel lane.

Because there is more activity in work zones, accidents tend to be more severe, with more injuries and fatalities, according to Keller’s video. It is no place to allow your emotions to control your driving behavior. “You need to be patient all the time,” says Rocky Cavins, a small fleet owner and driver. “Ohio is the worst for construction because they funnel everything down to one lane. But you have to stay patient all the way through the zone. Patience is the key to safe driving in every situation, not only in work zones.”

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