A driver’s split-second decision caused by a brief distraction can impact lives forever.
Three years ago this month, I received a phone call about a work zone crash that involved my younger brother, Tim, a project inspector for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC). A distracted driver had plowed through the construction zone where Tim was working.
That particular afternoon, Tim had been inspecting bridgework on the Western Kentucky Parkway. To create a buffer between workers and the traveling public, the road crew had established a temporary lane closure where posted signs and a flagger in high-vis gear warned motorists of the upcoming work zone.
Bright orange road signs and neon yellow uniforms, however, are no match for an inattentive driver barreling down the roadway.
The driver of the semi had plenty of sight distance approaching the work zone, but in his distracted state, he failed to notice the slowed traffic that had obeyed the flagger’s instructions. That brief distraction forced the semi driver to make a split-second decision: rear-end another vehicle and cause a chain reaction or cross over into the lane closure. Both options threatened to end lives.
Hearing the semi’s squealing brakes, the road crew, including Tim, scrambled to escape the path of the unstoppable rig. The tractor-trailer tipped over as it side-swiped a loaded asphalt truck on the bridge. Grating the guardrail, the overturned semi slid farther into the work zone, and everyone watched as the trailer demolished a foreman’s parked SUV. Finally, the tractor-trailer – minus cab and front end – halted only a few feet from where the road crew and my brother had been working.
Every day we hear of work zone occurrences like this one – either near-misses or crashes – most of which are avoidable. Last year in Kentucky alone, 675 work zone crashes were responsible for 10 fatalities and 143 injured victims. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), in work zones across the nation, one person dies every 13 hours and one person is injured every 13 minutes.
Whether conducting ditch repairs or reinforcing bridges, civil servants performing jobs in construction, maintenance and utility work zones deserve to arrive home safe and sound each night. Work zone safety is a shared responsibility. While road crews use industry training and best practices to create a safe working environment, drivers are also expected to do their part to keep work zones safe.
Speed and distracted driving pose two of the greatest threats to lives in work zones. Crew members’ lives, however, are not the only ones at risk. In fact, the FHWA reports that four out of five victims in work zone crashes are motorists.
To increase awareness of work zone safety, KYTC joined the nation in observing National Work Zone Awareness Week at the beginning of April. With Gov. Bevin having proclaimed April as Work Zone Safety Month, the Cabinet continues to encourage Kentuckians to travel cautiously during highway construction season.
When I answered that phone call three years ago, I was fortunate not to receive devastating news about my brother. Thankfully, the entire crew, motorists and the tractor-trailer driver were safe.
The men and women who build bridges, repair roads, plow snow, clear debris and mow right-of-way perform a public service for all of us who travel Kentucky’s roadways. Like Tim, they have families that depend on them to be present for dinners, baseball games and annual traditions.
It’s important for drivers to remember that they are entrusted to protect the lives of everyone on the road. A brief distraction can create a forever gap within the families and loved ones of highway workers and motorists.
Work zone safety is personal for me, and it should be just as personal for all travelers on Kentucky’s roadways. When your driving behaviors reflect respect for work zone safety, you’re doing your part to uphold the responsibility we all share.
Slow down for Tim; remain attentive for you.
Patty Dunaway, P.E., is a state highway engineer.