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Friday, July 10, 2009

Driver Education: Construction Zone Safety

The latest figures for the year 2007 show a 17% drop in construction zone fatalities over the previous year. That is the good news. The bad news is that there were still a total of 835 deaths in highway construction zones in 2007. That is a rate of almost 2.3 deaths per day. What most people don’t realize is that four out of five of those deaths involve motorists, not construction workers.

The economic stimulus program passed by Congress several months ago is directing money toward infrastructure repair. That means that there will be more highway construction projects than ever beginning in the near future. That also means that there will be a greater danger of collisions in highway construction zones. In order to make it safely through those construction zones, drivers need to be aware of the hazards involved and how to avoid them.

All highway construction zones are marked with orange warning signs. These signs are normally posted well ahead of the construction zone to alert drivers to the dangers ahead and to give them time to slow. These signs come in a variety of shapes and sizes based on their function. There are diamond-shaped warning signs, speed limit signs, and channeling devices such as barrels, cones and barriers. Barriers consist of orange and white diagonal strips that point downward in the direction in which traffic should flow: to the left or to the right of the sign. In some projects, people direct the flow of traffic using flags or hand-held slow and stop signs. The directions of these workers should be followed and carry the same weight as if a police officer was present to direct traffic.

Normally, a highway construction zone means that the road is going to be narrowed with barriers and in many cases, one or more lanes will be blocked off. A lot of collisions take place in these areas because drivers fail to merge into the remaining open lanes properly, fail to remain within their own narrowed lane and cause sideswipe collisions, or cause rear-end collisions when drivers fail to maintain a proper following distance from slowing traffic ahead.

If a merge into another lane is required, drivers should merge as soon as possible after seeing the merge sign. Waiting until the last minute only adds to the slow traffic conditions and raises the risk of a collision.

Drivers should also be on the lookout for construction trucks entering the roadway. Without typical acceleration lanes, these trucks will be entering the road at a slow speed and it will take them time to get up to speed. These areas require extra caution on the part of drivers, who should maintain a following distance of at least four seconds behind the vehicle ahead.

Many collisions in construction zones are caused by distracted drivers who aren't paying attention to the roadway ahead. While distractions such as using a cell phone, eating, or reading should be avoided at all times, they are especially dangerous in a construction zone.

One of the major problems in construction zones is speeding. Construction speed zones are set to allow the maximum safest speed under ideal conditions. There will be conditions where drivers need to slow below the posted speed limit. The danger in these zones come about when drivers become impatient and take risks; driving at speeds that are too fast for conditions. Impatient, frustrated drivers tend to take chances that they might not otherwise take. Speeding prevents a driver from having enough time to react to conditions ahead and is the cause of many of the rear-end collisions and collisions with construction workers by the side of the road. Higher speeds also mean the driver has less control over the vehicle. Speed in construction zones is so critical that most states double the fines for a speeding ticket in a construction zone.

Many of the major road construction projects within or near major cities are conducted at night in order to reduce the effect on rush-hour traffic. Nighttime requires extra patience and concentration. The lights used to illuminate the construction zone could blind drivers and prevent them from seeing workers in time. Slow down and concentrate on the road ahead.

Many states now have a "Move Over" law requiring drivers to move over into the opposite lane or, if they can't move over, to slow when passing emergency vehicles by the side of the road. Construction vehicles with orange flashing lights should be given the same consideration as police and fire vehicles. Many construction workers are killed each year by drivers who fail to slow or to use extra caution in construction zones.

Patience is the key in construction zones. Hazards will come from all directions; from construction workers and vehicles entering the road and from impatient, speeding, or distracted drivers. You can't change conditions in these zones; you can only adapt to them. That is the temporary price you have to pay for a new and improved roadway in the future.

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