Monday, April 1, 2024

Fatal work zone crashes on state highways doubled in 2023

By Kris Olsen

It's frightening. Shocking. And puts everyone at risk.

The number of fatal crashes in marked work zones doubled in 2023, compared to 2022. You read that right. We had 10 fatal work zone crashes in 2023 resulting in 10 deaths. In 2022, we had five fatal work zone crashes resulting in six deaths.

A photo that shows the damaged trailer attached to the back of a damaged work truck. The trailer is black and yellow. It is crumpled, torn and twisted.
A WSDOT attenuator truck smashed by a driver. The attenuators are positioned between oncoming traffic and crews, designed to absorb a hit from a driver who enters a work zone.

Numbers like these take our breath away. It's why we're continuing to take aggressive steps to protect not only our workers, but drivers and passengers as well. We're seeing more speeding and erratic behavior in work zones. It must stop.

April is Work Zone Awareness month. Throughout the month, our crews will tell their stories of incidents in work zones. The injuries, the close calls, the scary moments.

Drivers, passengers and pedestrians are at highest risk

Nearly 95% of people injured in work zone crashes are drivers, their passengers or nearby pedestrians.

The Washington State Patrol says the top three reasons for work zone crashes are the result of following too closely, excessive speed and distracted or inattentive driving. All easily preventable.

A photo that shows a gold or tan colored car that has crashed into the back of a white truck. The car’s hood is crumpled upward and the car is partially wedged under the truck. The white truck has an electronic signboard on its roof illuminated by yellow lights. Behind the truck and the car is a white ambulance.
Six WSDOT maintenance workers were injured on I-5 in Vancouver when a driver suspected
to be under the influence hit a work truck on Jan. 21.

Managing and reducing risk

Our crews know there is risk involved in the work they do to maintain, operate, improve and monitor our highways.

On Washington highways in 2023, we had:

  • 1,228 reported collisions in a work zone or in a related back-up.
  • 28 serious injury-related collisions in work zones.
  • 10 fatal crashes.

Before crews go into the field, they review their safety plan for the area. Their own safety is the first thing they think about before heading out to a job site. They doublecheck to make sure they have the right safety equipment, law enforcement on site as needed, attenuator trucks to protect them and a place to escape should a driver smash into the work zone.

They also think about traveler safety. They set up signs to warn of closures on the road ahead, they place construction barrels and even more signage to guide drivers safely past the work zone.

A photo that shows a highway with one lane in each direction, divided by solid yellow double lines. In the right foreground is a person holding a large red stop sign. They are wearing a yellow and orange vest and yellow hard hat while standing at the tailgate of white truck. In the distance, a large piece of yellow equipment is blocking the highway as it moves rocks. Two more trucks, a pale greenish yellow in color are parked on the side of the highway. Hillsides dotted with trees surround the highway.
A work zone on State Route 129 for shoulder maintenance. A WSDOT flagger keeps
an eye on both the work zone and traffic.

These efforts are more important than ever. We're seeing increasingly dangerous driving on roadways.

  • Some vehicles traveling 100mph or higher.
  • Driving under the influence. In 2023, DUI was a factor in seven work zone crashes. In just the first two months of 2024, there have already been two work zone crashes involving drivers suspected of being impaired.
  • Crews consistently report seeing drivers looking at phones, texting, watching videos, or using other electronic devices while blowing past signs about slowing down or stopping. That puts everyone at risk.

Work zone safety is everyone's responsibility

We need all drivers to be our partners in keeping roads safe. There are simple things every driver can do to make sure they arrive at their destination safely and ensure our workers go home at the end of their shift.

  • Slow down – drive the posted speed limits. They're there for your safety.
  • Be kind – our workers are helping keep you safe and improve roadways.
  • Pay attention – both to the workers directing you and the surrounding traffic. Put down your mobile devices and other distractions.
  • Stay calm – expect delays, leave early or take an alternate route if possible. No meeting or appointment is worth risking someone's life.
A work zone safety graphic reminding drivers to slow down, be kind, pay attention and stay calm

Changes in work activities and work zones

As we enter another busy construction, maintenance and travel season, our commitment to work zone safety mustn't waiver. We are working both in-house and with construction, union and legislative partners to improve safety in work zones for everyone.

Together, this includes:

  • Taking new and additional steps in designing some of our work zones. This may include additional closed lanes or a longer closure distance to create a larger buffer for our crews. We're also looking at new safety equipment.
  • Launching a work zone speed camera program. These cameras have proven to be successful in other states by reducing speeding in marked work zones. Additional details about the start of the program will be shared toward the end of this year.
  • Continuing to bundle multiple jobs into one to reduce the number of times crews are exposed to traffic.
  • Working more often during the day when visibility is better and there are typically fewer major collisions and excessive speeds. That doesn't mean you won't see us doing any work at night, just that more of it may be done during daylight hours.

But we need drivers to do their part as well by planning ahead, allowing extra time and using many of the tools we offer that will help get you safely through or around work zones and to your destination.

Never forget

Since 1950, 61 WSDOT workers have been killed on the job. At this year's Worker Memorial Ceremony, we will add Rodney C. Wheeler to our list of fallen workers. Rodney passed away on June 30, 2023. He was a bridge tender on our State Route 99/First Avenue South bridge in Seattle. This year's ceremony will mourn the recent loss of our colleague and honor the family he leaves behind.

We don't want to add any more names to the list.

A row of white hard hats with the WSDOT logo are lined up in a row. Behind them are orange traffic cones with reflective white tape around the top. Each cone has a white rose placed in it. On some of the cones, a person’s name is visible, noting that they were killed on the job.
Hard hats and traffic cones – one for each WSDOT worker killed on the job.
There were 60 at the 2023 memorial service. In 2024, there will be 61.

Our crews have run for their lives and jumped over barriers to avoid injuries, or even death, due to speeding, inattentive/distracted or impaired drivers.

A year from now, we don't want to read the number of people who died in marked work zones doubled yet again. Literally, lives are on the line.

Our workers are you

Our workers are more than hard hats and vests.

Two workers stand on rocks on the side of a road. They are wearing blue jeans, heavy boots, yellow and orange vests, hard hats, glasses and gloves. Of the men is holding a long thin piece of equipment while mixing materials in a container. Behind the men is a blue wheel wheelbarrow, a white bucket, box and a work vehicle.
WSDOT workers on the job

They're sons, daughters, husbands, wives, partners, parents and grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles. Just like you, they're Little League and T-ball coaches, school volunteers and scout leaders. They're caring for young children and aging parents, maybe both at the same time. They're hikers, skiers, snowboarders, readers, sports fans, gardeners and artists. They do school drop-offs and pick-ups, serve coffee and punch at church, run 5Ks and play soccer. They like to hang out with friends, fire up the grill, play video games, tell jokes, dote on pets, and bake cakes and cookies. They are you.

Please show them respect and give them space they need to do their jobs safely. Remember, work zones are temporary. Actions behind the wheel can last forever.