On the eve of the Memorial Day weekend—the traditional start of the summer driving season—an Associated General Contractors of America-HCSS survey of contractors shows that accidents in highway construction work zones remain a major problem, with some indicators worsening in the past year.
Ken Simonson, AGC of America’s chief economist, said in a press briefing via Zoom that the changes in the latest of the group's annual survey from its 2020 report were not dramatic. But Simonson added, “unfortunately, they’re in the wrong direction.”
Among the survey’s results, released on May 25, 64% of the AGC member firms that responded reported that a motor vehicle had crashed into their highway construction zones in the past 12 years.
That compares with 60% of those responding to the association’s 2021 survey, said Simonson.
He said 538 member companies participated in the latest in a series of annual work-zone safety surveys.
Among other indicators, 18% of those responding reported at least one construction worker injured in a work-zone accident. That percentage was about the same as in last year’s survey.
And 41% of the companies said that one or more motor-vehicle drivers or passengers was injured in work-zone crashes, compared with 35% in 2021.
In addition, 7% of those responding said work-zone crashes resulted in a construction worker fatality, up from 4% in 2021, and 15% said there were driver or passenger fatalities, up from 12% last year.
Moreover, 97% of respondents said highway work zones posed an equal or greater risk in 2021 compared with a year earlier.
Vehicle Speed and Mobile Phones
Factors behind the accidents include drivers' use of mobile phones, high speed and heavy traffic, respondents said.
Another key indicator shows similar trends. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's early estimate, released May 17, projected that overall U.S. traffic fatalities rose 10.5% in 2021, to 42,915—the highest level since 2005.
Simonson said that as the pandemic moved into 2021, more drivers returned to the highways, “and unfortunately they got used to being able to go faster when there was less traffic. They haven’t slowed down.”
Skip Poe, a principal with Smith Seckman Reid Inc., in Birmingham, Ala., said in the briefing that there is another factor. "In the past you were just driving fast. Now you’re driving fast, and you’re not paying attention.”
Simonson said that “if anything, phones have gotten even more distracting and the results are even more tragedies. "
Simonson said the amount of highway and bridge construction work is likely to increase, because of the spending boosts provided in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law last Nov. 15.
Support for More Police in Work Zones
Asked what steps would help reduce the number of work-zone crashes, injuries and fatalities, 81% cited a “greater police presence” in construction work zones and 67% said stricter enforcement of existing laws.
Steve McGough, HCSS president and chief executive officer, advocated an increased police presence and said there should be two police officers at highway work zones. McGough said that a single police car, even with blue lights flashing, does not tend to slow drivers down.
He added, “You really need to have two,” with one officer able to “track down the violators” and issue tickets.
McGough also favors using speed cameras that automatically trigger violation notices.
Marty McKee, vice president of King Asphalt in Liberty, S.C., said his company often has a police presence at its jobsites.
McKee recalled one night when a police officer at a construction zone was actively enforcing the speed limit. “He started pulling some people over," McKee said, "and our people were literally cheering…because, you know, it got everybody’s attention.”