Construction sites need to use every precaution possible when designing and operating highway work zones. The workers and any cars that come near the work zone are at constant risk of injuries and fatalities. Workers rely on drivers to follow the warning signs and movement directions that are posted at construction sites. Drivers and passengers rely on construction sites to provide warnings far enough in advance to prevent accidents as cars shift into other lanes or proceed with caution near the work site.
The dangers of work zone accidents are so severe that the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) participated in a National Work Zone Awareness Week (April 17-21, 2023) to instruct drivers about the need to slow down at construction sites, pay attention, and use extra caution. Sixty work zone employees since 1950 have been killed in work zone accidents, in Washington. Many workers have been seriously injured.
Some of the dangers workers face while doing highway construction work include being just a few feet or even inches away from cars that are speeding by. Too many workers have suffered injuries and too many have been killed.
National Work Zone Awareness Week
WSDOT, and other state departments of transportation, participate in yearly awareness weeks to help protect workers and drivers. During the most recent educational week, Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill authorizing the use of speed enforcement cameras at work zone sites on state highways.
A week in April is chosen because that’s when most construction work starts. Construction work is usually on hold during the winter except for emergencies.
How dangerous is driving or working in a work zone?
In short? Very. WSDOT reported that:
- On average, 626 highway work zone injuries happen in Washington each year.
- 60 WSDOT employees have died in work-zone related crashes/activities since 1950.
- 95 percent of the people injured or killed in work zone accidents are drivers and passengers.
- The main causes of work zone accidents are following too closely, speeding, and distracted driving.
- Nationally, there’s a work zone crash every 5.4 minutes.
There were 35 work zone crashes in Clark County (which includes Vancouver and Battle Ground) in 2022.
What makes work zones different from other road hazards?
The average work zone – especially one on a Washington State-owned roadway – is usually very visible. Aside from the presence of work trucks, you may see orange cones, jersey barriers, static and electronic signs, giant lights, or other indications of work being done in the area.
But perhaps it is these bells and whistles that make the work zones dangerous. After all, there’s a lot to see. And looking at everything is tacitly encouraged, given how many visual cues there are. We posit that one reason work zones are more dangerous is that they encourage, by their very nature, driver distraction. Even when thew work is being done on a sidewalk or in a parking lot, there’s still a lot to see, and it can be distracting.
Another reason why work zones and road construction sites are dangerous is because vehicles tend to bottleneck in them. There’s a lot of unexpected merging, even when signs say it’s coming. Depending on the type of construction, lanes may be narrowed or moved, or even blocked off. Furthermore, roadwork usually reduces the speed limit, and there are always drivers (or so it seems) who get nervous and refuse to speed up or pass when the lanes are narrowed.
Anecdotally, we know that people don’t always behave well in work zones, either. There’s that one driver who rides in the diminishing lane far longer than he (or she) should, trying to get ahead of all that traffic. That driver is being reckless, but so is the driver who decides it’s his or her job to “teach that guy a lesson” and refuses to allow the car to merge.
Safety tips for drivers at work zone sites
If you can avoid traveling through a work zone, we recommend that you do. It’ll be safer for you and for the workers. If you cannot avoid it, however, WSDOT and we recommend these safety tips for drivers who travel near construction sites include:
- Drive slowly. Drive no faster than the speed limit. In many cases, drivers will need to drive slower than the posted speed limit so they can merge into other lanes and be ready to stop when necessary.
- Be respectful. Drivers need to respect the workers who are helping to maintain and improve the highways. Drivers should also respect other drivers nearby who may be uncertain where to turn or merge or who need some time or distance to shift into other lanes.
- Be observant. Drivers should know where the workers are; whether the workers are on the road or on the shoulder of the road. Drivers should know what lanes and detours they need to follow. Drivers should never use their phones or Internet devices while driving in a work zone.
- Keep calm. Delays are to be expected especially during rush hours. For construction that may take days or weeks, drivers should either budget extra time or take alternative routes.
- Obey workers and signs. The construction sites (whether they’re operated by private contractors or governmental contractors) should have clear instructions on where drivers need to position their cars. These instructions can take many forms including written signs, flashing directional signs, traffic cones, and other steps. Many construction sites also use workers who manually direct drivers where to travel or when they can access certain lanes. With new technology, some construction sites use automated flagger assistance devices that direct drivers when they can and cannot proceed. Workers on highway construction sites who direct traffic often wear orange vests or other types of clothing that should prompt drivers to pay attention.
- Don’t tailgate. Drivers in front of you may stop on a dime. This means you need to be far enough away from other drivers to brake quickly enough to avoid rear-ending a car in front of you.
- Be aware of the roads. There are many different types of highway construction work from cutting or trimming trees and laying sewer lines to fixing bridges, constructing new lanes of travel, and fixing potholes. Drivers need to be aware that as they travel in one lane or shift to other lanes, the roadways may be stripped, gravely, have lots of debris, or pose other dangers.
Construction site owners and supervisors also need to take many steps according to state law and work zone construction standards to protect their workers and direct motorists where and when they can proceed to drive. Safety + Health suggests that placing temporary rumble strips in work zone areas may help keep drivers more focused on the road, so that’s worth exploring, we think.
At Philbrook Law Office, our work zone accident lawyers understand why accidents happen and who is responsible. We seek compensation for all of the injured person’s medical expenses, lost income pain and suffering, property damage, and any other financial or personal damages. If a driver or passenger dies in a work zone accident, we file wrongful death claims on behalf of your loved one. If a worker dies, we file wrongful death actions on behalf of contractors and recommend workers’ compensation lawyers if an employee was killed.
To discuss your personal injury or wrongful death claim with our highly respected trial lawyers at one of our offices in Vancouver or Battle Ground, WA, please call us or fill out our contact form to schedule a free consultation. We handle work zone accident claims on a contingency fee basis.
Founding Attorney Matthew Philbrook attended Clark College, Washington State University, and Gonzaga University School of Law. He is a member of the Washington State and Oregon State Bar Associations and started Philbrook Law Office in 2005. He specializes in Personal Injury, DUI and Criminal Defense cases. Learn more about Mr. Philbrook.