Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Rise in work zone crashes a concern for everyone

By Jordan Longacre

Flying glass, spinning lights and the crushing weight of a 4,000-pound vehicle slamming into roadside crews and a vehicle pulled to the shoulder. It’s a scene we see far too often in clearly marked work and emergency zones along the highway, and lately it’s only gotten worse.

“It’s a hostile environment working out on the highways,” Josh Stuckey, one of our Incident Response Team drivers, said. “We are standing right next to traffic flying by us at 50, 60 even 70 miles per hour. I can’t stress enough how important it is that drivers pay attention. We are out there protecting your loved ones, but remember, we are someone’s loved one too.”

Just in the past few months we have seen a flagger killed, an off-duty Seattle Police officer killed while helping a stranded driver, a Washington State Patrol officer hit by a driver in a stolen car, a tow truck operator who lost a leg in a work zone crash and another tow driver was killed along with two people he was assisting.  

In May, one of our Incident Response Team drivers was seriously hurt on I-405 in Bothell when a driver struck his truck in a lane closed to traffic. Police say the driver was impaired. This same IRT worker has been hit three times since 2016 while responding to drivers needing help on the highway.

Recently one of our Incident Response Team workers was seriously injured when a vehicle crashed into his truck as he assisted at the site of another collision.

“The people who work on our roadways, ferry docks and bridges are giving their best to make things safer for the traveling public,” Washington State Patrol Chief John R. Batiste said.  “They shouldn’t have to be giving up their safety, and in some cases their very lives, as well.”

It seems a daily occurrence we receive reports of another close call or worse with road crews and emergency response workers. We take each new report personally as these are not just our co-workers but also our friends. We need you to do the same.

Many of our workers have encountered close calls, suffered serious injuries or even died in our work zones. We average more than 100 vehicles or workers struck by third-party drivers every year and it’s hard to find any of our road workers who hasn’t had an injury or numerous close calls.

“We’re seeing far too many dangerous situations on our roadways,” Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar said. “Each of these are tragedies that affect roadway crews, their co-workers, families and friends. This can’t continue.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports Washington state had 557 highway traffic fatalities in 2020, a 3 percent increase from 2019 even with drastically reduced traffic due to the pandemic.

Crews work within feet or even inches of fast-moving traffic, trying to keep everyone safe. We focus on their safety by planning and equipping them to do their job, but we need the public’s help. Driving safely is everybody’s responsibility.

The aftermath of a work zone collision where one of our Incident Response Team workers was seriously hurt in Bothell.

So, what can you do? We ask all drivers in and near work zones to:

  • Slow Down – drive the posted speeds, they’re there for your safety
  • Be Kind – our workers are helping to keep you safe and improve the roadways
  • Pay Attention – both to workers directing you and surrounding traffic
  • Stay Calm – expect delays, leave early or take an alternate route if possible; no meeting or appointment is worth risking someone’s life

“Traffic whizzing by hardly fazes me anymore,” Stuckey said. “But I do notice when someone slows down or moves over, and I have to say we really appreciate it. We need that buffer between us assisting someone on the highway and the traffic going by.”

Incident Response Team worker Josh Stuckey speaks at a recent press conference about work zone safety, where he recounted close-calls he’s had in his decade working as an IRT.

By the numbers

Despite a significant decrease in vehicles and work zones on the road for several months in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of collisions in work zones remained high, and that has continued into 2021. And while roadway workers are at risk in work zone crashes, they’re not the only ones: 94.4 percent of Washington roadway work zone fatalities and injuries were to drivers, their passengers or people in other passing vehicles.

It’s not just workers who are injured in work zone crashes. In fact, in almost 95 percent of the cases, it’s the other driver, their passenger or people in passing vehicles who are hurt.

Impaired and distracted driving in work zones

One of the most significant factors we have seen in recent work zone collisions are drivers who are impaired or driving under the influence. A recent study by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission reports that 50 percent of roadway fatalities are due to impaired driving and on average 149 people die each summer due to these types of collisions.

Another contributing factor to work zone collisions on our highways is distracted driving.

According to the Traffic Safety Commission’s 2020 Distracted Driving Observation Survey, the statewide distracted driver rate increased from 6.8 percent in 2019 to 9.4 percent last year. The increases included all types of driver distraction, not just hand-held cell phone use.

Distracted or inattentive driving is one of the top three leading causes of work zone crashes on state highways. Our crews say they regularly see drivers looking at phones or other devices and blowing past signs about slowing down or stopping – which puts everyone on the road at risk.

Attenuators have been life-savers in protecting our crews, though we wish they weren’t needed. On the right is an intact attenuator, on the left is one crushed in a work zone crash while protecting workers.

Chief Batiste urges drivers to take responsibility on the road. “Safe roads are everybody’s business,” he said. “Slow down, never drive impaired and pay attention to the road in front of you.”

Move Over, Slow Down law

While many work zones are scheduled ahead of time and have pre-planned traffic control in place, we also have emergency work that requires crews to be on highway shoulders or lanes next to active traffic.  State law requires motorists to move over one lane if possible whenever passing emergency crews on highway shoulders. If moving over isn’t possible, then drivers must slow to 10 mph below the posted speed limit.

The Move Over, Slow Down law applies to more than just law enforcement or fire trucks, it also includes our Incident Response Trucks as well as highway maintenance vehicles, tow trucks and solid waste trucks and utility trucks – as long as they’re displaying flashing lights.

So, the next time you’re out on the road and you see the flashing lights of a patrol car or one of our own IRT trucks, take a moment to move over or slow down. You might just save a life; it could even be your own.