With speeding and crashes up since the start of the pandemic, most contractors are reporting that highway construction zones became no safer this past year and might have grown even more hazardous.
A recent Associated General Contractors of America survey suggests that 97% of contractors nationally think work zones are at least as dangerous as they were a year ago or even more dangerous. Sixty-four percent of the respondents also reported incidents in the past year in which drivers had crashed into their work zones. Among possible remedies, some in the industry are calling for the installation of traffic cameras and the adoption of zero-tolerance policies for speeders.
The survey, whose results were released Wednesday, elicited responses from more than 500 contractors throughout the U.S. The results were in line with recently released federal data showing that traffic deaths hit a 17-year high in 2021.
Jim Hoffman, president of Black River Falls-based Hoffman Construction, said the survey corroborates what he has seen on his own work sites and heard from employees. As much as speeding, he said, the biggest risks stem from drivers not paying attention to the road.
“And it’s hard to combat inattentive driving,” Hoffman said. “We always preach to our workers and other stakeholders on projects, by having team meetings, to try to keep one eye on traffic.”
Wisconsin lawmakers have passed various laws in recent years banning the use of hand-held cell phones in work zones and trying to discourage other dangerous behaviors. Last year, they approved legislation increasing the penalties for drivers who cause injury to first responder, construction workers or utility workers along roadways. The penalties now are fines running as high as $10,000 and jail time for as long as nine months.
Hoffman said such laws are welcome but always prove difficult to enforce. Moreso than passing new restrictions, he said, the state ought to direct its efforts to making sure the public is aware of the dangers of distracted driving.
Hoffman’s company works on highway projects in both Wisconsin and Minnesota, and he said he has seen no real difference between the two states in the behavior of drivers going through work zones. The AGC’s survey in fact suggests that concerns about distracted driving and speeding through construction zones are prevalent throughout the country.
Steve McGough, president and CEO of the construction-software company HCSS, said the installation of traffic cameras in work zones combined with a zero-tolerance policy for speeding could go a long way toward improving the crash and fatality statistics. Ken Simonson, AGC chief economist, noted other safety measures contractors have been taking: equipping crews with devices that vibrate to alert them when a car has encroached on a work zone, redesigning construction areas to keep workers better protected and making sure zones are clearly marked.
He said increased enforcement and stricter penalties for cell-phone use, in some places at least, would help. But he also agreed that little will change without the public’s cooperation.
“The best thing anyone can do to protect themselves and workers is to slow down, put the phone away and pay attention when they are in a highway work zone,” Simonson said.
Although contractors are concerned about the safety of their crews, the AGC’s survey found that it’s not construction workers who in fact are at the greatest risk. It’s instead drivers and passengers.
Of the respondents to the AGC’s survey, 18% reported work-zone crashes that resulted injuries to construction workers, well below the 41% that reported crashes resulting in injuries to drivers and passengers. Seven percent of respondents reported work-zone crashes that killed a worker, whereas 15% reported crashes resulting in driver or passenger fatalities.