Highway Construction Worksites: A Danger Zone for Motorists

When I settled a case recently, I was reminded just how dangerous highway construction work sites can be for passing motorists – and in so many different ways. In my case, the accident happened around noon in a construction zone on Interstate 70 near Terre Haute, Indiana as the family I represented was returning to Virginia in a motor home after taking a summer vacation trip. At the time of the accident, the left (passing) lane of I-70 was closed, and construction workers had directed traffic from the passing lane to the right lane. As a result, my family’s vehicle was stopped in a long line of traffic waiting to merge into the single right lane.

Well before the merge point, there were signs warning of the merger ahead. An electronic message arrow board stood beside the roadway directing traffic to the right, and of course, there were the usual orange traffic cones leading up to the point of lane closure. Despite all these safety precautions, a Roadway Express tractor-trailer, hauling twin trailers and weighing almost 80,000 pounds, failed to stop and drove into the rear of and over a stopped pickup truck, lodging the pickup under the front of the tractor.

With the pickup still underneath, the Roadway Express truck continued moving forward, running into a Ford Taurus before it slammed into the rear of the motor home causing the cabinetry inside to fall off the walls and onto my 11-year-old client. The motor home caught fire. In a dramatic rescue, my client’s parents found their daughter trapped under debris inside the burning RV and managed to evacuate her just before the motor home exploded. My client’s injuries in this work zone / construction zone accident were catastrophic.

Statistics document the dangers associated with driving through highway work projects. According to the Federal Highway Safety Administration, in 2007 there were 835 fatalities and 40,000 injuries in work zones. Over 80% of the fatalities were motorists. The most common type of work zone accident is the rear-end crash where a vehicle strikes the rear of a stopped or slower vehicle. Fatal crashes are most likely to occur on roads with speed limits of 50 mph or higher.

Now that the interstate highway system is 50 years old, states are undertaking more highway projects to improve and repair our highway infrastructure. The federal stimulus package also included funds for more highway projects. At the same time, traffic congestion is intensifying as more vehicles take to the road. Additional traffic and more highway construction has been a dangerous combination.

What makes for a safer ride through highway construction sites? First, there is no substitute for driver awareness. When you drive, minimize distractions and devote your complete attention to the road ahead. Don’t change the radio station, eat, or use your cell phone. A work zone can be confusing if you are not paying close attention.

  • Be alert for all signs. Reduce speed when warned. If you see heavy congestion ahead, slow down even more.
  • Detours are especially hazardous. Often they take you along narrow, curving, and shifting lanes, with temporary speed limits and merging traffic.
  • Be prepared to stop quickly, while carefully observing traffic, brake lights, and conditions ahead. And no tailgating! When first approaching a highway construction site, allow yourself more distance for slowing quickly when necessary. Also carefully monitor the traffic beside you, and be alert to react if a vehicle suddenly moves or merges into your travel lane.
  • Vehicles and equipment associated with the work site are also potential hazards (e.g., earth moving equipment, police cars, or other service vehicles with flashing lights). These vehicles may enter travel lanes with or without flaggers.
  • Traffic patterns often change in construction zones, so be alert for signs that announce such changes. My recent Indiana case demonstrates the dangers of merge zones. Many crashes occur when motorists merge from a closing lane into another. When you see signs indicating lane merger ahead, do so well before your lane closes, and leave a safe following distance.

As my clients found out, large trucks are a particular hazard. Approximately 30 percent of all work zone crashes involve large trucks. The stopping distance required for a large truck traveling at 55 mph is almost 50 percent greater than the distance a car needs to stop. If a truck driver follows too closely and you need to slow down or stop suddenly, there is no way he will stop in time. Studies show that, on average, a tractor trailer in good condition travelling 55 miles per hour on a level, dry stretch of highway will require about 313 feet to stop. (Va. Code sec. 46.2-880). That’s over a football field!

What can you do to reduce the risk of being hit by a large truck? Your options are limited because traffic is usually congested in construction zones and it’s difficult to control what is happening behind you. Just do your best to drive defensively. Don’t slow down or stop suddenly unless necessary. To the extent you can control the distance between you and the vehicle ahead, slow down to lengthen the space. This lessens the risk of your hitting the vehicle ahead if you are rear ended by a truck, or if you have to slow or stop abruptly yourself. One of the most dangerous places for you to be is sandwiched between two tractor trailers. Avoid this whenever possible.

Also avoid, to the extent possible, driving alongside a large truck in what is called the “no zone” or “blind spot.” The truck driver may not see you in his mirror and may change lanes into your lane without warning. Stay alert for truck turn signals ahead and be prepared to safely make space for his maneuver. It won’t be long before you drive though a highway work zone again. I hope that, after reading this blog, you will be more vigilant and cautious. You and your passengers will be all the safer for it.

About the Author: Ted Allen is a Richmond personal injury attorney with the law firm of Allen & Allen. For over 35 yease, Mr. Allen has handled cases involving highway accidents and tractor trailer accidents for Virginia clients.