Smart Driving: In the zone

In the Zone

Construction on federally funded projects will add to highway work areas this spring and summer.

Slowing down, paying attention to signs and watching for workers and equipment will help you drive safely through construction areas


By Max Kvidera

As summer approaches, the highway construction season — marked by lime-colored vests, hard hats, orange traffic cones, heavy equipment and flashing lights — is already under way. This year promises to be busier than ever as state and county road departments and construction contractors gear up to complete infrastructure jobs financed by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds.

Knowing how to safely maneuver through highway construction projects will help save you or your company time and money and avoid accidents. Negotiating highway construction zones requires planning, patience and awareness, drivers and trucking safety experts say.

“It’s an important topic,” says Tom DiSalvi, director of loss prevention at Schneider National. The carrier covers the topic in initial driver orientation and refresher training with its experienced operators. The company utilizes posters, newsletters and discussions among the fleet manager and drivers.

The Utah Trucking Association covers construction zone safety in communication with its members and advertises major construction projects to truckers using heavily traveled interstates through the state, says Terry Smith, UTA safety director.

Key points for successful construction zone driving are in maintaining awareness of proper speeds, other drivers and the need for hands-on logistics.


Smith says the biggest problem is too much speed. Utah’s construction zone speed limit is 55 mph, which is monitored closely, he says. In Utah, as in many states, the fine for speeding is double in a construction area.

Construction sites’ slower speeds are posted and range from 35-55 mph, depending on the state. Paul Garnett, an owner-operator leased to Prime Inc., says most motorists don’t realize that posted limits are designed for passenger cars. Since it requires a much greater distance to stop a tractor-trailer in an emergency, Garnett lightens up on the throttle by 5-10 mph under the posted speed limit. “For me it’s the same as driving on an exit ramp where you want to slow it down,” he says.

Garnett adds he will decelerate even more when passing through a construction area at night or in the rain because it’s then so much harder to see flaggers.

Sometimes cone-marked lanes present too-narrow passages for heavy-duty trucks.

Chris Howard, a driver for K.B. Transportation, says he slows down and maintains a generous following distance. “I try to be 5 mph under the posted limit. It makes a lot of people mad, but it’s safer,” he says.

DiSalvi says slower speeds of 5-10 mph less than the posted limit make it easier to maneuver through lengthy construction areas that may have several S curves. He recommends taking off cruise control.

“Once an accident happens in a construction zone, it closes things right down,” Smith says.


Other drivers often pose a problem when moving through a construction zone. Drivers may not see sign­age as they approach a work project, or they will try to drive as long as possible in the lane designated to merge into the lane next to it. “They’ll wait to the last moment to make that change to squeeze into an open spot and cause the rest of traffic behind to slow down,” DiSalvi says.

Larry Coleman, a driver for 23 years with A.N. Webber, says that after slowing down he’s looking around for equipment, like shovels and rakes, in his lane. “You also have to look for flaggers.”

Garnett says, “You do constant eye movement, looking for construction workers, flag men and heavy equipment.”

Flaggers, workers and equipment are among the things drivers need to look for when moving through a construction zone.

Drivers also say you have to watch closely for narrow lane widths in construction zones. Lane widths and other logistics of how a construction site is set up vary from state to state. Garnett says most temporary construction lanes are rigged for cars and don’t always take into account truck widths. “Sometimes,” says driver Howard, “when you go through concrete barricades as lane dividers, it’s a bit close for trucks to maneuver.”


With the widespread use of state transportation department telephone hotlines and websites, most construction projects are widely reported. As traffic increases in the spring and summer, however, navigating through work areas can take longer.

Garnett says if he has the time flexibility he will plan to drive through a known construction area during off-peak daylight hours or at night. “Trip planning is a big part of it,” he says. He acknowledges that summer is the busiest period for construction traffic, but winter work presents its own problems with ice, snow and lanes that aren’t always plowed.

DiSalvi says a driver’s route and trip plan will determine whether it’s efficient to avoid a sizable construction area. “Whenever possible, where there’s a major construction area that they can avoid, if they can do it reasonably, that would certainly make sense.”

Sometimes, in an attempt to avoid an interstate construction site, drivers may find themselves on an unfamiliar secondary road, which presents its own challenges. DiSalvi says drivers on those roads should be more aware of bridge clearances and different speed limits.

As such, Howard will usually opt to drive through a construction area, rather than taking a detour route. “Sometimes it’s more dangerous to go on detour routes with trucks,” he says.

Smith notes that many drivers rely on global positioning systems to assist in routing, but that isn’t always the best tool in passing through work areas. “Sometimes GPS doesn’t know what’s going on,” he says.

Where will you run into construction zones this summer? Howard says it will be difficult to avoid projects in and around major cities. Coleman expects more construction on I-80 in northern Indiana, “where they’ve been working on something for the past five years.”

Construction zone safety tips

• Stay alert and give full attention to the roadway.

• Pay close attention to signs and work zone flaggers.

• Turn on headlights so workers and other drivers can better see your vehicle.

• Do not tailgate. Leave plenty of room for sudden stops.

• Slow down to the posted speed limits.

• Keep up with the traffic flow.

• Do not change lanes in work zones.

• Minimize distractions in vehicles. Avoid changing radio stations and using cell phones.

• Expect the unexpected.

• Keep an eye on workers and their equipment.

• Be patient.

• Move minor accidents from traffic.

Source: Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association


Tracking Speed

The Federal Highway Administration is funding research for a Variable Speed Limits (VSL) Demonstration Project in Maryland work zones.

The VSL technology determines appropriate speeds for work zones and changes them when conditions change.

This demonstration project will analyze variations in speed and accompanying driver behavior, such as abruptly hitting the brakes. Similar FHWA projects are under way in Michigan and Virginia.

Construction/Maintenance Zone Crashes Involving Large Trucks

Work Zone                 Fatal                    Injury                          Property Damage Only

                                 #        %               #                %                        #                      &

   Yes                    174    4.2%         2,000          3.0%              10,000                3.2%

     No                 4,016   95.8%     70,000         96.5%            306,000             96.4%

Unknown             —         —                —                  0.5%                 1,000                0.4%

*Less than 500.

Note: A large truck is defined here as a vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating greater than 10,000 pounds.

Sources: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Fatality Analysis Reporting System, and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, General Estimates System