Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The work zone paradise

By Andrea E. Flatley

Close your eyes (well, pretend to and keep reading) and imagine you're on a boat. Feel the waves rocking underneath as the blue water sparkles in the sun. The wind is blowing a salty breeze through your hair. You hear the faint hum of engines as other boaters enjoy the day around you.

That's the kind of feeling our WSDOT signals crews experience when they're out repairing the overhead Variable Message Signs (VMS) on the Ship Canal Bridge. It's a bit like paradise, with a few exceptions:
  • The waves rocking is actually the bridge span swaying as traffic zooms by.
  • There is water under you, but it's a LONG way down – more than 120 feet down. And at 1 a.m., that water is pitch black, not sparkling blue.
  • The wind is blowing but it's a biting chill over the Montlake cut and it's throwing up car exhaust instead of a saltwater breeze.
  • The faint hum of other engines is cars and semis heading up the incline of the bridge.

Some of our workers go up in a bucket truck on the Ship Canal
Bridge while others provide traffic control on the ground.

All of that creates a working environment that isn't for the faint of heart. It's hard enough working on a swaying bridge at night, but add vehicles whizzing by, and it can be downright scary. Thankfully on the night I joined the signals crew on the bridge, drivers respected the work zone and most merged left to give the crew some safe room to get the job done.

When we have repairs or projects that require lane closures, we try to do it in the overnight hours when there is less of a traffic impact. But nighttime conditions create their own challenges, including an increase of DUI drivers – WSP says the busiest time for them removing DUI drivers is from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. - the road and decreased visibility due to the dark. It can be a scary situation for road workers. We set up our traffic control to do our best to protect crews. We display signs and use cones and barrels in advance of our work to notify drivers. And we use road warriors and other vehicles with flashing reader boards and crash barriers to protect workers. But that traffic control isn't always enough.

We are just three months into 2016 but already we've had more than a dozen work zone crashes in the Northwest Region (Federal Way through the Canadian border) that involved the traveling public. These include illegal turns onto a highway into a WSDOT truck, an unsecured ladder flying off a vehicle into a WSDOT truck and an employee being hit by a car while providing traffic control.

Back to the Ship Canal Bridge
We often hear that our workers are "just standing around." In truth, there are multiple reasons you may see a worker standing by. In this case, while two workers used a bucket truck to get inside a VMS to fix its controls, others were on the ground scanning the highway for anything that might put their teammates at risk – the semi with an oversize load, the SUV weaving across lanes, the sports car going way too fast. These workers on the ground are needed to help implement initial traffic control and then they're the eyes for the workers who are inside the sign or are bent over a guardrail putting bolts back in place. These are some of the things WSDOT does to help keep work zones safe, but we need your help.

How can I help?
If you see flashing lights, whether it's an emergency vehicle or a construction vehicle, please merge away from it or slow down. Pay attention to the orange construction signs that are up on the road. These signs are helping to tell you what's closed so you can make early decisions about an upcoming work zone. Spread the world. This week support the #GiveEmABrake initiative and don't be afraid to spread the message year round.

Thankful to get home safe
The night I was out with the signals crew we had courteous drivers on southbound I-5. Most of them merged away from the work zone or were able to reduce speeds. The signals crew managed to get most of the VMS working again. But when I returned to the office an hour later, I heard the always dreaded information come in – work zone crash. A black Mercedes crashed into one of our WSDOT trucks out fixing a pothole and took off. This was just yards from where I'd been with the signals team. My heart sunk and my mind started racing as I thought first of my colleagues that might've been hurt and then my mind turned to "that could've been me!" Luckily, none of the crew was hurt.

I'm very glad we all made it home to our families that night. Please, help me work to ensure that happens every night. We want all work zone crews and the traveling public to go home to their friends and family. Don't drive distracted and Give Work Crews A Brake, it's not paradise out there.