Orange cone tango

Construction zones can be chaotic and stressful, so plan ahead to avoid traveling them during peak hours.

Driving through highway construction is like a complicated dance. The truck is your partner, and the other vehicles and construction workers on the road are the dancers swirling around you.

But highway construction is no cake walk. If you don’t know the steps, you’ll end up damaging your truck or worse – running into the other dancers.

Highway construction is among the worst problems drivers face: dangerous road conditions, spectacular backups, and it’s in every large city, forever and ever, amen.

“It’s been here at some phase and some location since I’ve been living here,” says Lt. Tim Frith, 24-year veteran of the Florida Highway Patrol.

Frith, who’s lived in Palm Beach County, Fla., for 16 years, could be speaking for almost all the states. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, we had about 2.5 million miles of paved roadway in 2000, and about 30 percent of city interstates and 15 percent of country interstates were in “mediocre” or “poor” condition.

That’s a lot of highway, and when that gets fixed, more will have worn out and need repair.
“It’s like death and taxes,” says owner-operator Pete Schram of Dundee, Mich. “Get used to it. It’s going to be here.”

Truckers and four wheelers alike complain about construction zones.

“They don’t understand that when the state and federal departments of transportation put the road-repair money out there, it has to be used right away, or it’s going to be lost,” Frith says. “In the long run the construction is going to make things easier for us.”

Road construction is never going to end, so job one for drivers who fume about construction is a new attitude. The massive traffic tie-ups and dangerous road conditions in and around construction zones are nothing more than normal truck driving: an unpleasant but permanent chapter in the job description. Getting angry about it makes no sense.

“Everybody gets into construction,” Schram says. “If you get excited, park it. If you can’t handle it, get out of driving; you’re in the wrong line of work.”

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Of course, some drivers get happy by complaining. For them, highway construction is a useful tool.

But for the rest, construction is no problem if it’s handled professionally. Drivers can locate construction zones ahead of time and, with common-sense trip planning, avoid them, or drive through them during low-traffic hours.

“Pick the right time to go through construction,” Schram says. “Avoid the rush hours, and try to get through there at night. You’ll save yourself a lot of aggravation. Or just sit back and figure an alternate route. Check on conditions ahead of time.”

Schramm uses his radio, mostly. “I listen to the local news on XM all the time,” he says. “It really helps out. They’ll give reports on the traffic through construction.”

Another fast, easy way to get construction reports is from state departments of transportation by phone.

“By calling 511 in Florida, truckers can check the road conditions,” Frith says.

Other states have the same service. “Florida is not the first state to do that, and in most of your large cities you’ll find that some type of similar service does exist,” Frith says. “They offer up-to-date information.”

Near the front of its Motor Carrier’s Road Atlas, Rand McNally lists phone numbers and web sites for road condition and construction information in every state, Mexico and Canada.

But maybe the easiest way to get highway construction information is to ask, either on the CB or in truckstops. Fellow drivers will have the kind of information you’ll need in detail, from which lane moves the fastest to tight corners and low-hanging branches on detours.

Driving through construction at night, or at least during off-peak traffic hours, is usually faster, safer and much less stressful, but don’t get complacent. Nighttime construction traffic has characteristics all its own. “There are a lot more collisions during the day, but they’re not as severe,” Frith says. During the day there’s more traffic, but it moves slower, he says. Motorists tend to drive faster through construction zones at night because the thinner traffic gives a false sense of security.

“Then we get more fatalities,” Frith says.

There’s usually more construction activity at night than less, he says. “You’re more likely to have dump trucks and road equipment pulling out in front of you at just about dead stop,” Frith says.

The floodlights at construction sites can at best ruin your night vision and at worst momentarily blind you, and at night it’s easier to lose track of brake and running lights among flashing barricades and directional signs. Besides that, dump buckets and bulldozers kick up vision-obscuring dust.

“Drivers have to be aware of that,” Frith says. “If we have a collision between a semi and a dump truck, that road is going to be blocked indefinitely, depending on what kind of cargo the semi is carrying.”

Frith says a construction-zone accident involving hazmat cargo will “paralyze an entire city,” whether it’s day or night. Drivers hauling hazmat should ratchet their safety procedures up several notches for construction zones.

When there are no reasonable alternate routes, or logistics scheduling requires driving through construction zones during peak traffic hours, try a few basic techniques to increase safety, decrease stress and get through the construction without incident.

First, keep planning ahead. Construction zone traffic moves slower. If it’s rush hour, you might be creeping along for miles. Depending on the time of day and traffic conditions, allow yourself plenty of extra time to get through the construction.

“Most truckers are pretty much expert drivers, and they’re pretty knowledgeable,” Frith says. “But I’ve stopped drivers who were driving like maniacs, and they tell me they’re late for a delivery. The problem is, if there’s a wreck involving a tractor-trailer, one vehicle is going to lose, and it’s not going to be the big truck.”

Ironically, some drivers think construction zones are good places to catch up if they’re running late.

“These drivers think the whole world is on their shoulders,” Schram says. “They’re trying to make up for lost time for oversleeping or something. You’re not going to make up the 48 hours you lost waiting to get loaded by speeding through a 15-mile construction zone.”

Allowing extra time for construction traffic helps with another construction-zone driving technique: keeping emotions on an even keel.

“It’s 100 percent attitude that effects your driving,” Schram says. “If you go into construction mad about the backup or something else, your common sense goes right out the window, and you’re primed to go bad.”

Calm, considerate, defensive driving is best for all under normal conditions; it’s doubly best in construction-zone traffic.

“Drive defensively,” Schram says. “Don’t tailgate, give up plenty of room, and mainly, don’t be in a hurry.”

The consideration should extend to a well maintained, smooth-running vehicle as well.

“If I’m going to prepare for a trip, before I start my journey I’m going to make sure my vehicle is in good shape maintenance wise,” Frith says. “Most truckers are good about that.”

That’s a powerful endorsement, coming from a 24-year highway patrol veteran. But don’t prove the lieutenant wrong. Start and end each trip with vehicle inspections, and if something doesn’t pass, get it up to spec’ before driving: certainly before driving into a shoulderless construction zone where a breakdown will stop you in traffic. One bad air line or drive belt, and you’ll be blocking a construction zone lane and creating the very backup you wanted to avoid.

As you approach construction, do a quick, rolling check on all systems. “Don’t go into a construction zone if your engine is sputtering,” Frith says.

In fact, state laws prohibit vehicles from stopping in construction-zone traffic lanes for any reason, even an accident.

If you’re in an accident in construction, “state statute requires you to move your vehicle to free that lane up, if it’s still movable,” Frith says. “The only exception would be to protect life – if people are lying in the road in front of you.”

Frith says move on as soon as possible after the accident, and stop at the first safe place, “even if you have to drive a mile down the road,” he says. “If you create a bigger traffic hazard than you have to, then you’re going to be held liable and responsible for it.”

When driving through construction, “slow down and increase your following distance,” Frith says.

But even slowing down and increasing following distance are not always enough to get you safely through construction.

You have to watch out for other motorists. “Most drivers expect the other motorists around them to drive without making any mistakes,” Frith says. Why be surprised when other motorists mess up? Construction zones have decreased margins for error.

“You really have to watch your mergers coming on the highway when there are no shoulders,” Schramm says. The best way to do this is to follow instructions.

“Comply with whatever the advisements and directionals say,” Frith says. “The DOT is really strict about having arrow boards and warnings. The information is there. It’s just a matter of paying attention to it instead of dealing with distractions,” he says.

Distractions cause a lot of accidents, so when you’re in a construction zone keep your mind on the road. That means no phones, food, coffee, changing the radio station, switching CDs, lighting cigarettes, or staring at billboards, other motorists or crazy drivers. Drive as if a law enforcement officer were in your passenger seat.

“There’s a reason they keep trucks in the center lane,” Schramm says. “But you’re always going to have the trucker who speeds up in the right-hand lane to get ahead of other trucks.”

He related one story about a trucker who tried this move, with near-disastrous results. “He pulled out in the right-hand lane and was going to pass about six other truckers in the center,” Schram says. “He got a head of steam up, but then we came to an on-ramp. There was no shoulder, and merging traffic had no place to go when they get to the end of the ramp.”

Schramm says a lawn maintenance truck pulling a trailer “had already committed to merging, but the big truck driver wasn’t going to give him a break. The driver just blew his horn, and that lawn maintenance driver had to lock up,” Schramm says. “He just missed the concrete barrier.”

Had there been a line of traffic on the ramp, the ensuing pile-up might have spread into the right lane.

Merge ramps with no shoulders in construction zones during peak traffic hours are highly treacherous. Motorists have trouble merging anyway, but without the shoulder to bail out, the danger is intensified exponentially. Give motorists plenty of room to handle this situation. Even in the center lane, be ready for vehicles on the right to suddenly cut over as they are encroached upon by merging vehicles with no place else to go.

If there are no shoulders in a construction zone, this will happen, guaranteed. This is no place for hotheaded or hurried driving.

“Most of our problems come from aggressive driving,” Frith says. “This has intensified over the last few years.”

“Going into construction zones where lanes are reduced and traffic is bottlenecking, it takes a little more patience,” Frith says. “So what if one more car or truck gets in front of you? What difference is it going to make? I mean, give us a break here.”

Besides other motorists, watch for construction workers, too. “Their minds are on their jobs, so it’s up to you to watch out for them,” Frith says. Construction workers commonly step very close to or directly into traffic, and they might be at fault for that.

Nonetheless, it’s your job to cover for his/her mistakes.

Stay calm, but get more focused on your job when taking your rig into construction. “Be prepared; use patience,” Frith says. “Careless driving will lead to wrecks in construction zones. Most truckers are better trained than other motorists, and most are excellent drivers. But semi-trucks create huge problems when they’re in accidents.”

“My father was one of the best drivers I ever knew,” Schram says. “He said, ‘plan ahead, and drive your way out of trouble.’ If you look ahead, you’re already watching what’s going on and planning what you’re going to do about it. A lot of these guys are focused on what’s two feet ahead of them. You have to flow with the traffic.”

Cut Off at the Pass
Rolling roadblocks might be facing extinction.

“They’ve started giving tickets to truckers who block traffic with rolling roadblocks,” says owner-operator Pete Schram of Dundee, Mich.

Other motorists will always try to get ahead of traffic by racing up in the lane that’s closing and cutting in at the front. This blatantly selfish behavior angers some drivers, but there’s nothing to be done.

“If the people who race up and cut in knew how much havoc they’re creating, maybe they wouldn’t do it,” Schram says. “That’s something they need to teach in driver education.”

“They need to teach that to truck drivers, too,” Schram says. “I’ve seen them driving their big trucks like four-wheelers up there, trying to save time.”

Besides being quintessentially rude, racing ahead in the closing lane is also dangerous and unprofessional; courtesy is the rule.

“If everybody would just get over and make room for everybody else, then you wouldn’t have traffic coming to a complete stop like that,” Schram says. “We’d all roll right through.”

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