AGC Survey: Highway Work Zones Getting More Dangerous for Workers, Motorists

More than half of the respondents in the 2023 highway work zone study conducted by the Associated General Contractors and HCSS reported that they had a motor vehicle crash into a highway construction work zone in the past year. 

The work zone safety study was based on a nationwide survey conducted in April and May. More than 900 highway construction firms completed the annual survey, which is designed to better understand the frequency, severity, and impact of vehicle crashes in highway work zones.

Ken Simonson, the association’s chief economist, reviewed the results of the survey during a recent webinar.

In addition to the 55% reporting at least one work zone crash in the past year, 24% of the contractors said there were five or more crashes over the past 12 months.

“Every state should provide a greater police presence in work zones, authorize the use of speed cameras in those zones, and set higher fines for people who operate unsafely in those work areas,” Simonson said. “Our transportation networks may be invaluable, but the lives of workers and motorists are priceless.”

He noted that with funds from the infrastructure law starting to be released, the U.S. is on the brink of a significant upswing in highway and bridge construction projects. All that road work means motorists are likely to be passing through multiple highway work zones at any given time. 

Per the survey, cars and work zones don’t mix well as the construction workers are often just inches away from the speeding vehicles.

survey resultsAGCMatt Musgrave, deputy executive director AGC of Vermont, who also participated in the webinar, admitted that when he came onboard with AGC several years ago he was basically an office person. The most dangerous tool he traditionally manages is a computer mouse. 

He has since learned the challenges of highway construction and attempted to describe it for those watching the webinar.

“Think about being on the side of the road with 75 mile an hour vehicles going past you on one side within two feet and on your other side also only two feet away you’ve got a 20 foot deep trench with a giant excavator bucket going next to you,” he said, noting that on top of that, many workers might be wearing a protective facemask for protection, which also limits eyesight and you would likely be bumping shoulders with other people working.

“It just gets exponentially worse and that’s the best picture I could paint of it,” Musgrave said.

Traveling at speeds of 75 mph or more, from the motorist’s point of view, Simonson said drivers are often distracted, speeding and/or under the influence when driving through the work zones.

“Additionally, most states do too little or nothing to educate motorists about work zone safety and far from enough to protect workers and motorists in those work zones,” the chief economist said. “This is bad news not just for construction workers, but also for the people traveling through those work zones.”

According to the survey results, it is the motorists who are in even greater danger from highway work zone crashes than the workers themselves.

Among those who experienced work zone crashes, 28% of survey respondents indicated that it resulted in an injury to a construction worker. Simonson noted that twice as many firms—59%—experienced a crash in which drivers or passengers were injured.

The numbers further reflected that drivers and passengers are twice as likely to be killed in work zone crashes compared to the workers. 

According to the survey results, 8% of respondents reported that construction workers were killed in work zone crashes, while 16% of survey respondents reported drivers or passengers were killed in those crashes.

“Construction firms are going to great lengths to protect workers and motorists alike,” Simonson said. “They are training workers to be more aware of their work zone surroundings. They are better marking highway work zones and laying them out in a way that provides more protections to workers.”

In addition, he said they are investing in technology to alert workers when vehicles are entering the work zone.

Despite all that, Simonson said the survey results indicated that 97% of contractors report that highway work zones are as dangerous, or more dangerous, than they were a year ago.

Laws and education

General sentiment among road building construction workers is that there is simply not enough being done to enforce the safety laws. Many have reported to AGC that police are reluctant to leave the work zone and pursue offenders and in some cases are not allowed to. 

“We have in many parts of the country gotten to a point where it is sort of rationalized why we’re not enforcing or collecting fines that we’ve issued for moving violations,” said Brian Turmail, AGC vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives. “We need to do more to toughen up the laws that are on the books and we need to do more to enforce the laws are on the books. Our objective is to see people operating safely in work zones so that they can go home at the end of the day safely and so the men and women who work on our roads and bridges can go home safely as well.”

According to the survey results, 65% of contractors want stricter enforcement and 79% want an increased police presence.

“There is also too little enforcement of existing highway work zone laws,” Simonson said. “Too many police departments and highway patrols fail to put a priority on protecting work zones.”

HCSS President and CEO Steve McGough agrees.

“Too many work zones have one officer present which makes it difficult to enforce the speeding laws,” he said. “Let’s make two officers mandatory where one has the ability to track down these repeat violators because they’re out there.”

survey resultsAGCAs an anecdotal example, Musgrave described Vermont as the “wild west” of work zones.

“There is inadequate safety in our work zones due to law enforcement being limited to three duties,” he said. “Law enforcement in Vermont at work zones is allowed to direct traffic, help set up the work zone and they’re allowed to provide blue light enforcement meaning they cannot leave the work zone to pull someone over.”

Per state law, motorists can drive through a work zone at 90 miles an hour with a liquor bottle in their hand and the officer on the scene cannot pull out of the work zone to pull over that driver.

In addition, a recently passed law allows motorists to get out of a revocation or suspension of their license if they are unable to pay a fine associated with speeding or another traffic violation.

“I think the important thing is that when you look at that from our perspective, number one, I don’t think that you can put dollar value on a person’s life,” Musgrave said. “I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. I’m sorry, if someone comes from a bad circumstance, it doesn’t give them the right to essentially break the law and kill someone.”

He noted that in these cases a fine is not important.

“If they’re doing this on a regular basis, we want to take their license away from them so they can’t drive,” Musgrave said. 

Challenging the Vermont legislature has only led to further disappointment over the last several years.

“They wanted the workers to do more work to ensure their own safety and that of the motorists,” he said. “What we heard was akin to asking the victim of abuse to be nicer to their abuser, in hopes that they won’t someday kill them.” 

From Musgrave’s point of view that is simply not acceptable.

“When someone breaks the law and kill someone in a work zone, it’s murder and it should be treated as such and should be prevented,” he said. “We need to prevent these needless deaths by increasing enforcement, whether it be by patrol, camera enforcement or education.”

Based on the survey, it appears contractors agree. A total of 53% want automatic ticketing for speeding in work zones.

Currently 25 states have some kind of law authorizing work zone cameras. However, in many cases there are strict limitations on the use and the fines are as low as $75. 

For example, Turmail said in Maryland, where the six workers were recently killed, there are hundreds of work zone sites operating on any given day but there are only 20 work zone cameras to spread around.

“We do think it’s an invaluable resource,” Turmail said, noting that research on the effectiveness of the right mix of cameras, police enforcement and signage is currently being reviewed by a team at the University of Memphis. The report from that group is expected to be presented in the next few months.

“The objective here is not to give out tickets,” Turmail said. “The objective here is to get people to slow down.”

He pointed out that anyone using Google or Apple map functions on their phones while driving is warned about a half mile in advance of any speed cameras and likely leads to slower and safer operation.

The challenge is not all about law enforcement, it is also about government action.

Simonson pointed out that local transportation officials are often too unwilling to provide more separation between workers and motorists.

All too often, contractors are unable to get the lane closures they want enact for safety reasons. 

Turmail noted that on the beltway in Baltimore where the workers were killed, there are at least half dozen other spots where barriers in the work zone have indentations from cars striking them.

“This was a work zone that had multiple cars striking into the zone and you know, when you’ve got car so close to a work zone, it’s very challenging,” he said.

One concept that AGC members have been able to accomplish in some states is working with the state Department of Transportation to shorten a one-year project with one-lane closed to a one-month projects with the road completely shut down.

“There are obviously all kinds of pros and cons to either argument, but I definitely say our members would like to be more at the table with those conversations and make sure that safety is an important factor as you know the need for the economy to keep literally moving,” Turmail said.

However, again using his home state of Vermont as an example, Musgrave noted that in some instances that is just not feasible.

Living in a state covered with hills, valleys and mountains and considering the well-known phrase “you can’t get there from here,” he said full lane closure is just not an option.

“I think it’s important to understand the work that goes into these projects,” Musgrave said.

Nearly every aspect of a road construction project is overseen by an engineer, from the choices of lane closures and to placement of warning signs.

He noted that placement and spacing of warning signs for motorists is all based on a national standard under the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices or MUTCD. 

“That’s put together by engineers who look at things like physical characteristics of human beings, like how long you’d have to get someone’s attention for,” he said. “That’s why you’ll see signage is all very uniform.”

The uniformity is also why there are times when signs warning of a work zone through a long expanse with no work being done appears. The signage is in place to follow federal and state law relating to MUTCD.

“When we talk about work zones and we talk about what are the things that we can be doing between the engineering for signage, the cone placement, lane closures, there’s literally no argument that the traveling public can make to say they’re not aware that they’re coming up on a work zone and how they’re supposed to operate in those,” Musgrave said. “That goes back to education. These rules aren’t put together by accident they’re put together by purpose using science.”

All is not doom and gloom. 

Simonson said states like Oklahoma are taking aggressive steps to improve the safety of our highway work zones.

Starting November 1, Oklahoma will become the first state in the country to require new drivers to complete a one-hour online work zone safety training program as a pre-condition for receiving their driver’s license.

Also, he said Pennsylvania and New York have recently enacted measures to allow a limited number of speed cameras on highway work zones.

Simonson noted that while helpful, it’s not enough.

AGC is encouraging every state to follow Oklahoma’s example and prioritize education and enforcement to make work zones safer.

Pushing governmental bodies to do more, AGC is also calling on motorists to do their part and stay off the gas and put their phones down when traveling through work zones.

“Nobody should die because our laws fail to penalize unsafe operations in work zones in the same way they punish drunk driving and stigmatize not using a seat belt,” Simonson said.