Even as overall traffic levels fell over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of crashes and fatalities at work zones has risen, according to a recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Workers patching potholes, striping roads, directing traffic or building highways are more at risk than ever,” it states, “as drivers zoom through work zones or are preoccupied chatting or texting on their phones.”
These trend in spite of a steep reduction in vehicle miles traveled: 40% in April 2020 (compared to April 2019) and 26% in May, per federal data. The report goes on to state that work zone crews continue to deal with reckless motorists even as traffic volume resumes. It cites a series of instances in Michigan, in which “vehicles struck three county employees in a state contractor” over the course of a single week, killing two of those victims. Pew stresses that motorists and passengers also suffer the consequences of reckless driving, noting that of the 672 fatal work zone crashes with 755 deaths in 2018, only 124 of those deaths were among the work zone crews. Of the 123,000 work zone crashes in 2018, it said, 45,000 people suffered injuries.
Work zones pose special risks, it states, due to frequently changing traffic patterns and rights of way, as well as the simple fact that workers are very close to vehicles on the road. These risks have been enhanced over the course of the pandemic, as municipal authorities take advantage of reduced traffic to increase work zone activity. As a Missouri safety and operations officer told Pew, “Ifyou’re patching a pothole or doing a pavement repair, the only thing between you and traffic coming at 80 miles an hour may be a traffic cone… If you have one driver distracted by their cellphone, it’s fatal.”
Pew cites a number of instances of the nationwide increase in highway speeding during the pandemic, which has put work crews in increased risk. In one instance, an eastern Oregon state patrol office “clocked a car in April going 104 mph in a posted 50 mph construction zone” before running off the road. Last month in North Carolina, a state police officer “chased a motorist who was driving 187 mph through a work zone on Interstate 95.” In March, a traffic control flagger was hit and killed by a motorist in North Carolina; in June, a construction worker directing traffic in Illinois was struck (and later died) by a speeding vehicle; and in August, an Iowa maintenance worker died after his vehicle was hit by a semi truck.
As Pew notes, work zones traditionally employ safety measures including attenuators, which are essentially “big crash cushions mountain on the backs of trucks or on trailers,” and which are intended to absorb a vehicle’s energy and mitigate the harmful effects of a crash. Transportation officials in Missouri have noted “a jump in the number of vehicles crashing into attenuators” over the course of the pandemic, with an increase from 21 at this point in 2019 to 41 this year. In August, one state official said, “an 18-wheeler moving at more than 70 mph hit an attenuator with an employee in the truck,” who required surgery as a result of the incident. There were 18 work zone crash fatalities in that state last year, and 23 already in this year, according to Pew.
Pew notes further that all states have “move over” laws requiring motorists to reduce their speed (and change to a new lane, whenever possible) to pass emergency vehicles, and that in some states these laws also apply to tow trucks and maintenance vehicles. However, it states, “police say it’s hard to enforce such laws in work zones, which often have narrow lanes that sometimes weave in and out.” One police spokesperson told Pew that “There’s no way for us to sit in a work zone and enforce traffic laws.” Some states have found new ways to enforce the laws, such as Pennsylvania, which establish automated camera and radar systems to identify motorists who defy speed limits in active work zones. That state’s Department of Transportation had issued “60,000 violation notices” as of September 9, 2020.
In Ohio, where five work crew members have been killed as of October and there have been a total of 3,286 work zone crashes in 2020, Department of Transportation officials have made use of “air enforcement zones.” Workers paint lines at every quarter mile of the work zone, and state patrol pilots use the lines to identify speeding vehicles, then contact a ground-based trooper by radio who initiates a traffic stop. Since mid-February, according to Ohio’s Department of Transportation, “nearly two dozen state workers have been struck.”