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May 5, 2017

Time to put the brakes on 700 work zone deaths

  • The majority of those killed or injured in roadway work zones are motorists, not the workers themselves.


    National Work Zone Awareness Week (NWZAW) is an observance set aside every year, usually in April at the beginning of the busy roadway construction season. The event allows workers — and all road users — an opportunity to focus on the dangers that exist in roadway work zones.

    The latest national statics from 2015 reveal 700 deaths nationwide in work zones. That’s a high number, but what’s surprising to most is the majority of those killed or injured in work zones are motorists, not the workers themselves.

    Our workers know the drill. Get the right training and certification to do your job. Wear the right protective gear and reflective apparel. Exercise caution and safety every waking moment. Expect the unexpected.

    Too bad motorists don’t take work zones as seriously.

    Seven hundred fatalities annually behind the orange cones should be enough information to slow anyone down, but motorists continue to text, speed, follow too closely, drive drunk, drive tired, and most worrisome — completely disregard orange signs and the workers within the work zone.

    For the most part, the nation has taken notice of the dangers that exist in work zones. We have reduced the number of accidents and injuries in work zones over the years, but there is still a lot of progress to be made as we hope to someday bring those numbers of fatalities to zero — not only in work zones, but on our nation’s roadways in general.

    Even though NWZAW 2017 (April 3-7) has officially passed, many states mark the event at different times of the year. For example, in cold states the start of the construction season doesn’t begin until May. Other states, like Virginia, have permanent memorials to honor fallen work zone workers that the motoring public can stop and reflect at all year long.

    Virginia’s stunning granite worker’s memorial is located near scenic Afton Mountain on I-64 eastbound. The beautiful memorial was built with contributions from VDOT employees and citizens. According to VDOT’s website: “The (memorial) site provides a place where family members, friends, and colleagues can reflect on their loss, and where the traveling public can become more aware of sacrifices made by state highway transportation workers.”

    Other states have year-long campaigns that feature media advertisements, billboards, celebrity spokesmen, and even mascots who visit schools to help educate young children on work zone issues, while making the topic fun and entertaining.

    NWZAW began as a small event, but today is a major community relations outreach program that nearly every state in America takes part in.

    The program was created in December 1999 when members of the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA), the Federal Highway Administration and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials signed an agreement proclaiming that such an event would be held every year. The three agencies have lived up to their nearly 20-year-old promise to do so.

    The first event was held in Washington, D.C., in April 2000. At that event, over 1,026 orange cones were set on the grassy field next to the Washington Monument. Each cone represented a work zone fatality. Back then, the number of motorists killed in work zones surpassed the number of workers killed by 70 percent. That statistic remains constant even today.

    Representatives from ATSSA spoke at the first event, and workers made up the audience. It was a small gathering, but it sparked the question from many passing tourists on the Mall that day who asked, “What do all those orange cones mean?”

    It was a road worker’s first interaction with a motorist on “neutral ground.” The two talked safety and the motorist learned something about the dangers that exist in roadway work zones.

    That’s how community relations events are born.

    As the event grew every year, other states began conducting their own unique ways to spread the word. Many DOTs would bring damaged crash cushions and vehicles to the event to give the public — and the media — a visual of what roadway workers experience every day in work zones. Then came the workers who survived crashes, or had near brushes with death. They all told the media and the public their own unique, compelling story. How they’re often yelled at by motorists, or how passengers in moving vehicles have thrown debris at them in moments of rage. Again, the public listened, and the event grew even larger across the country.

    One year, then-Federal Highway Administrator Mary Peters sat at a desk in a work zone adjacent to I-95 in Springfield, Virginia, in the morning rush hour and proclaimed sternly on national television, “Slow down, this is my office.”

    That event made an impact on the nation, and it’s an image that’s still fresh on the minds of many of us in the roadway safety industry today.

    But perhaps the most important group of people to be brought to the attention of the American people are the families of those workers killed or seriously injured in roadway work zones. The unfortunate men, women and children who said goodbye to their loved one in the morning, and never saw them again. They are the ones who tell the most compelling and heartbreaking stories of all and many have stepped to the podium at NWZAW events across the country to tell their stories.

    The American Traffic Safety Services Foundation’s National Work Zone Memorial contains the names of men, women and children killed in roadway work zone accidents from all over the country. Every year, the 8-by-28-foot portable exhibit is featured as the centerpiece of the national kickoff event, and then travels around the country as part of work zone safety events all year long. At the end of the year, the memorial is refurbished, additional names are added — and the cycle begins again.

    ATSSA, established in 1969, is an international roadway safety trade association. Its members provide safety products and services that make roadways safer — including signs, pavement markings, temporary traffic control devices, guardrail, rumble strips and crash cushions. The Fredericksburg, Virginia-based association also leads the nation in training roadway workers.

    You can reserve the work zone memorial by emailing Foundation@atssa.com.

    James Baron is director of communications for ATSSA.

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